By RONALYN V. OLEA
April 5 marked the birth of a woman who is accused of violating human rights and causing the death of another woman who died defending human rights.
As former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo celebrated her 64th birthday on April 5, family and friends of student journalist and woman human rights defender Benjaline “Beng” Hernandez commemorated the ninth year of her death.
Hernandez, then the deputy secretary general of Karapatan-Southern Mindanao Region and vice president for Mindanao of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), was gunned down on April 5, 2002 by members of the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) led by Master Sergeant Antonio Torilla of the 7th Airborne Battalion of the 12th Special Forces Company of the Philippine Army in Arakan Valley, North Cotabato. Killed with her were her three companions. Hernandez was in the area to follow up the documentation of a massacre that happened the previous year also in Arakan Valley.
Cristina Palabay, convenor of Tanggol Bayi-Karapatan, said the criminal accountability of Arroyo and her military generals should be pursued in the Hernandez case.
Evangeline Hernandez demands justice for her slain daughter.(Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea / bulatlat.com)
Hernandez’s parents had filed murder charges against the perpetrators. Torilla was briefly detained at the Amas Provincial Jail in Amas, Cotabato. In March 2004, his counsel filed a petition for bail before Branch 17 of the Regional Trial Court in Kidapawan City, which the court granted. Today, Torilla remains in active service of the Philippine Army.
Last year, the local court in Kidapawan acquitted Torilla of murder, shortly after the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) released its judgment on the Hernandez case. The UNHRC issued its decision in August 2010. The Committee 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.”
Four years before, in March 2006, as the Hernandez family found the local legal proceedings inefficient and very sluggish, they submitted the case through Karapatan to the UNHRC, which monitors the State party’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). At the time, the local court had not yet decided on the case.
The Philippine government signed the ICCPR in January 1986 and the Optional Protocol on ICCPR. The Philippines is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
In the UNHRC decision it 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 reiterated that the Philippine government is under an obligation to take effective measures to ensure that the criminal proceedings are expeditiously completed, that all the perpetrators are prosecuted.
The Philippine government has yet to comply with the views of the UNHRC.
In a statement, the CEGP said that while the UN resolution is a good thing, the lives of other human rights defenders continue to be threatened. “We fear for the lives of our members, who, like Hernandez, continue to write for the people. The UN resolution is a huge leap in the pursuit of justice, but the culture of impunity that has already claimed more than a thousand lives continues to be a reality,” the CEGP said.
Palabay said Arroyo should be held accountable for the extrajudicial killings of Hernandez and all human rights defenders who were summarily executed under the pretext of GMA’s counter-insurgency program called Oplan Bantay Laya.
Tanggol Bayi-Karapatan said that with the filing of the members of the Morong 43 yesterday of the first human rights violation lawsuit against Arroyo, Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III should be challenged to make good his pronouncements to act on the prosecution of Arroyo and her top military and police officials for the numerous rights violations and for the perpetuation of the climate of impunity during the Arroyo administration.
“Today, as Arroyo celebrates her birthday, the blood of thousands is still on her hands. The years will not diminish it, nor would the family and supporters of the victims forget it. The cry is now stronger than ever: Aquino, Punish Gloria Arroyo!” Palabay said.
The CEGP added that although it was Arroyo’s administration that had been condemned by the UN, it is still the job of the current administration to hold accountable those who perpetrated – and tolerated – torture, abduction, extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights violations.
“It is high time that he fulfill his campaign promise of making sure that Arroyo will pay for her crimes to the people. He has been at the helm of the government for a year now, but no Gloria Arroyo, no military personnel, no official – no one – has been prosecuted. At this rate, Hernandez’s case, like many others, would remain a memory of injustice,” the CEGP said.