While families of victims of extrajudicial executions testified before him during his recently concluded 10-day visit to the Philippines, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extra judicial, arbitrary and summary executions Prof. Philip Alston said he was almost moved to tears. “It was a harrowing process,” he admitted.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions last week admitted that probing the spate of political murders in the Philippines is a “harrowing process.”
The UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, an Australian professor at the New York University, was in near tears on Feb. 21 when he recounted to the media his experience in investigating the killings of civilians, political activists and journalists, most particularly when he heard the stories straight from the victims’ families. He spent 10 days in the Philippines interviewing families of victims of political killings and other violations of human rights as well to President Gloria M. Arroyo and other government officials.
“I was incredibly upset by the execution of a 21-year old son of this woman testifying before me,” he said, referring to Erlinda Manano whose son, youth activist Isaias, was murdered reportedly by soldiers on April 28, 2004 in Calapan, the city capital of the island-province of Mindoro Oriental.
“I was almost in tears but I tried not to show anything,” the UN expert said. “Then she said ‘sir, here are the photographs of my son,’ and I simply had to say, ‘take them away please.’”
“I know it was rather offensive but I couldn’t bear to look at him. I would have collapsed,” Alston said, his face turning red.
Alston came to the Philippines following complaints of human rights violations filed recently by families of the victims in coordination with the human rights alliance Karapatan and other groups with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The HRC sent Professor Alston and a few other Special Rapporteurs with the consent of the Macapagal-Arroyo government. Alston’s visit was allowed in the wake of pressure from the international community on Macapagal-Arroyo to take steps in stopping the political killings in the country.
The UN investigator also noted the magnitude of how the killings are perpetrated. He particularly mentioned a case of a man who was killed while sleeping.
“I met with a woman whose husband was killed in an alleged encounter with the military. He was in bed next to her with the children behind them. He had no weapon and he was shot 47 times,” he said.
Alston went short of saying the murders of political dissenters in the country were perpetrated as part of a state policy by the government particularly the Armed Forces of the Philippines’s (AFP) counterinsurgency program.
The military has repeatedly denied this accusation, insisting the killings were part of an “internal purge” of the underground Left.
Alston, however, likened the military’s denial to “alcoholism.” “As in alcoholism, the first step to recovering is to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Without that, forget it. There’s nothing that could be done,” he said.
“That’s close to how I see the military at this stage. They occasionally make public statements which are yielding but if you look at the systematic legal response to the Melo Commission, it is in denial. That’s the real position of the military,” he explained.
But Alston was quick to say he was not “asking for a witch hunt or anything very dramatic.”
What he wanted was, he said, a statement from the very top – the president, the defense secretary, and most of all the Chief of Staff saying extrajudicial executions will not be tolerated.
Alston said the AFP should begin to “investigate seriously and methodically not in a way to simply protect its own officers.”
Some sectors of the civil society, however, find Alston’s remarks inconsistent when he said he did not believe that “there is a policy at the top designed which direct that these killings take place.”
Alston’s press statement does not mention the government’s Oplan Bantay Laya (Operational Plan Guard Freedom), the Macapagal-Arroyo’s counter insurgency program which aims to “neutralize” the “communist front organizations,” among others. But he did mention in his recommendation that the government’s counterinsurgency program should be reviewed.
The Alston report also failed to note that President Macapagal-Arroyo has, in fact, given the military an additional Php1 billion budget to end the communist insurgency in two years.
No democratic space
That progressive patylist groups, particularly Bayan Muna (people first), Anakpawis (toiling masses) and Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP), are targets of political repression was confirmed by the Alston findings.
Alston noted that although the Philippine government created an opening for leftist groups to enter the democratic political system by repealing the Anti-Subversion Act and enacting a partylist system law, it has “worked resolutely to circumvent the spirit of these legislative decision by trying to impede the work of the party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely,” Alston said.
“The idea is not to destroy the NPA but to eliminate organizations that support many of its goals and do not actively disown its means,” the UN Special Rapporteur concluded. He said there are cases in which the government has “spilled over into decisions to extra-judicially execute those who cannot be reached by the legal process.”
In his testimony to Alston on Feb. 20 at the House of Representatives, Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said that of the more than 360 activists killed, 169 are from party-lists: Bayan Muna, 127; Anakpawis, 40; and GWP, two.
Casiño said 77 House resolutions and 22 privilege speeches on human rights were filed during the 12th and 13th Congress. Only 10 committee hearings were held to hear such cases, Casiño said, but in almost all these hearings military officials refused to appear while government officials have constantly invoked Executive Order No. 464 which requires government officials to seek presidential approval before appearing in congressional hearings.
The Bayan Muna representative said only two committee reports were approved by the Committee on Civil, Political, and Human Rights of the House. He said they used as basis the committee’s report to oppose the promotion of Jovito Palparan to major general before the Commission on Appointments but their protests went unheeded.
Meanwhile, the military top brass and Secretary of Justice Raul Gonzales assailed the Alston report with the latter saying that the UN independent expert has been “brainwashed” by the Left.
The military has been trying to assert that the killings are part of a purge within the communist movement. “This theory was relentlessly pushed by the AFP and many of my government interlocutors,” Alston said in his statement. “But the evidence offered by the military in support of this theory is especially unconvincing,” he said adding that the figures presented by the military were related to the purges of the late 1980s.
The military also presented an alleged document from the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army (CPP/NPA) captured in May 2006 describing a supposed Operation Bushfire. “In the absence of much stronger supporting evidence this particular document bears all the hallmarks of a fabrication and cannot be taken as evidence of anything other than disinformation,” Alston said.
Following Alston’s departure from the country on Feb. 21, the military had relentlessly tried to discredit the figures of the human rights watchdog Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of Peoples’ Rights) by presenting to the media two men who were listed as “killed” in the Karapatan tally but who have been proven to be alive and in the custody of the military.
The two men are Renato Bugtong and Edwin Mascariñas.
In an interview with Bulatlat, Karapatan secretary general Marie Hilao-Enriquez said it was human error that Bugtong was listed as “killed” but should have been listed as “illegally arrested” and “tortured.”
Karapatan-Batangas Chapter Fact Sheet No. 011-02 states Bugtong, a farmer, was illegally arrested by 2nd Lt. Jaime M. Velasco II and T/Sgt. Celso Voluntad of the 7401st Combat Squadron, 740th Combat Group, based in Brgy. Dulhatab, Balayan, Batangas on June 27, 2002 in his home in Sitio Salipit, Barangay (village) Talisay, Calatagan, same province.
Bugtong, the fact sheet revealed, showed signs of torture. He bore cigarette burns on different parts of his body and contusions on his knees and also on other parts of his body. He was charged with violation of Republic Act 1700 (illegal possession of firearms) for owning the firearms allegedly found in the house of neighbors Val and Myra Soriano.
Bugtong was reportedly released on bail and is now reporting to the military.
Mascariñas, village coordinator of the partylist group Anakpawis (toiling masses), on the other hand, was reported to have been abducted by soldiers on April 13, 2004, in his home in Barangay Masahuisi, Bongabong town also in Mondoro Oriental, according to an incident report of the Karapatan-Southern Tagalog chapter.
Human rights workers of Karapatan went into a fact finding mission on April 15 the same year but were prevented from proceeding to the place of incident, the report stated.
Doris Cuario, Karapatan-Southern Tagalog secretary general who was part of the mission, said they were held inside the Iglesia Filipina Independiete (IFI) church in Barangay Bagong Bayan in the town of Roxas also in Mindoro Oriental for more than 24 hours.
Isaias Manano, who was then the provincial coordinator of Anakpawis, was part of the fact finding team and was among those who negotiated for their safe release. He was shot dead two weeks after, on April 28.
Cuario said their team was not able to proceed with the investigation on the Mascariñas case as military operations intensified in the place of incident. But neighbors of Mascariñas told their team that there was a wake for Mascariñas while the human rights workers were being held at the IFI church, Cuario added.
Karapatan has yet to verify if the Edwin Mascariñas being presented by the military to media is the same person as the one abducted and allegedly killed in Roxas town, Mindoro Oriental.
Meanwhile, in response to the Alston report, AFP Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon said, in a press conference, that it is Alston who is in denial. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, on the other hand, downplayed the significance of Alston’s report calling him, as newspapers reported, “sonofagun” and “just a muchacho.”(Bulatlat.com)