The main perpetrator in the extrajudicial killing of human rights defender Benjaline Hernandez was granted bail by a local court and was reportedly acquitted recently. But the United Nations Human Rights Committee found the Philippine government accountable for her death.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — Eight years since human rights defender and campus journalist Benjaline “Beng”Hernandez was killed, justice remains elusive. The family saw a ray of hope when the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) recently held the Philippine government responsible for her death.
Beng was killed, along with three others in Arakan Valley, North Cotabato on April 5, 2002. Beng, then deputy secretary general of Karapatan-Southern Mindanao Region and vice president for Mindanao of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), was conducting a research on the impact of the peace process on the local community. She and three residents were about to take their lunch when six members of the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), led by Sgt. Antonio Torilla of the 7th Battalion (Airborne) of the 12 Special Forces of the Philippine Army strafed the hut they were in. The autopsy disclosed that two bullets had been fired at Beng from close range and that she had been lying on her back when she was shot.
The family filed a multiple murder case against the perpetrators. Only Torilla was named respondent while the charges against the others were dismissed. The local court in Kidapawan handling the case granted bail to Torilla and the junior military officer remains in active service in the Philippine Army.
In March 2006, Beng’s mother Evangeline decided to file a case against the Philippine government, as a state party, at the UNHRC under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Philippine government signed the ICCPR in January 1986 and the Optional Protocol on ICCPR in November 1989. The Philippines is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
“After a serious investigation of the UNHRC for almost four years, the State, particularly the Arroyo administration, has been proven accountable for the death of Beng and her colleagues and of violating the ICCPR,” said Evangeline.
In a recent decision, the UNHRC found the Philippine government guilty of violating Article 6 of the Covenant which states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
The UNHRC also noted: “Despite the fact that bail is not normally granted in murder cases, it was granted in this case. Subpoenas for the attendance of the military witnesses as hostile witnesses for the prosecution were disobeyed or ignored…[R]emedies have been unreasonably prolonged and will prove to be ineffective.”
The UNHRC also said while the Philippine government denied that the killing of Beng was attributable to its military organization, it did not present any convincing evidence that the main suspect was acting in his own interest. “Nor did the State party submit convincing information on any effective measures it undertook, in compliance with its obligation to protect the right to life under article 6, paragraph 1, to prevent and refrain from arbitrary deprivation of life,” the Committee said.
“This is another fatal blow against the former administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her cohorts who are being held responsible for the unprecedented record of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances under their watch,” Edre U. Olalia, secretary general of the NUPL who assisted Karapatan in the filing and pursuit of the case, said in a statement.