Spotlight once more on extrajudicial killings

In his fourth state-of-the-nation address President Duterte didn’t say a word about the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines that have shocked many all over the world.

Just the week before, his government had been embroiled in a ruckus over the approval of a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council, urging the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to look into the killings – including those related to the president’s “war on drugs” – and produce a written comprehensive report on the country’s human rights situation.

Three days after the SONA, however, killings linked to the government’s intensified counterinsurgency campaign hit the headlines again, generating strong public reactions.

In Guihulngan City (Negros Oriental), five civilians fell victims to summary killings by unidentified gunmen. First killed by motorcycle-driving men while driving his car in broad daylight on Tuesday, was lawyer Anthony Trinidad, 53. That was followed on Thursday with a series of killings: at past midnight, Arthur Bayawa, 55, Guihulngan National High School principal, and his sister Ardale, DepEd curriculum division chief, were shot dead in their home; at 4:30 a.m. Barangay Buenavista chairman Romeo Alipan, 64, was killed in the same way in his home; and in Ayungon town, Negros Oriental, motorcycle-riding men gunned down Reden Eleuterio, 50.

These interesting data on the slain lawyer came up in the news reports:

Anthony Trinidad was the 39th lawyer (including judges) slain since Duterte assumed office in July 2016, per the Integrated Bar of the Philippines; he was the 71st EJK victim on Negros island (according to the Karapatan-Central Visayas chapter) and the 267th EJK casualty in Karapatan’s national recording of such incidents under Duterte’s watch.

With these, the total of Karapatan-recorded EJK victims under the Duterte regime has risen to 271. (Note that this pertains only to politically motivated killings.)

But mind that the total figure already exceeds the 262 recorded EJKs in the first five years (2010-2015) of President Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s immediate predecessor. Also mind that, as early as May 2012, already 22 member countries of the the 47-member UNHRC deplored P-Noy’s “dismal record” in prosecuting cases of EJK, enforced disappearances, and torture.

One shouldn’t wonder now, why 18 UNHRC member countries voted to call for a comprehensive report on the Philippine human rights situation, to be made by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. (A former president of Chile, Bachelet fought and survived the prolonged Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.)

Human rights advocates have pointed out two significant aspects of the killings in Negros island.

One is the fact that the names of some of the most-recent EJK victims – such as Trinidad and the human rights lawyer killed in November, Benjamin Ramos Jr. – are included in a list contained in a flyer, distributed in Negros, that referred to them as “supporters of the CPP-NPA.” The other is that the implementation of Duterte’s Memorandum No. 35, issued in December ordering the deployment of additional military troops in Negros and other regions purportedly to suppress “lawless violence,” may account for the killings, particularly of peasant organization leaders and members (for instance, the 14 killed in a joint AFP-PNP operations under “Oplan Sauron” carried out in Guihulngan, Majuyod and Sta. Catalina towns in March this year).

On the heels of this week’s killings, Karapatan stated: “These escalating deaths in Negros reveal the catastrophic effects of the Duterte regime’s intensified militarization of communities. We do not discount the possibility that these policies have resulted (in) the deaths of these civilians, owing to the expanded power given to the police and the military – authority that they can easily abuse.”

“As the government brazenly promotes the culture of tyranny and impunity,” Karapatan added, “it is very alarming how state forces [have] turned the region into a killing field through an orchestrated pattern of attacks – vilification, harassments, killings.” The human rights alliance decried as “outrageous and dangerous” PNP chief Oscar Albayalde’s announcement that the intensified campaign of the AFP and PNP in Negros would continue, alleging it was producing “good” results.

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos that includes Guihulngan, who had raised a strong protest and condemnation of the March killing of 14 peasants, asked, “What’s happening to our island?” He called on the priests and lay leaders serving in the diocese to “meet and discern together what collective action to take in response to this worsening situation so we don’t give in to despair, complacency and numbness and put an end to this.”

The bishop may look back to the EJK incident in Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental, on June 14, 2010, which through timely and proper handling turned out to be “the first breakthrough in the struggle to end extrajudicial killings of political activists,” as I wrote in this space on Oct. 2, 2010.

The case involved the killing of Benjamin Bayles, a parish worker of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) and Bayan Muna coordinator. Through a confluence of circumstances, the two motorcycle-riding killers of Bayles, who turned out to be Philippine Army soldiers, were intercepted by the Kabangkalan police. Largely through the initiative of IFI Bishop Felomino Ang, a “Justice for Bayles, Justice for all Victims of Human Rights Violations” was mobilized on the ground that frustrated all military and government attempts to derail the trial. The two soldiers were convicted for the killing.

Bayles’ case was the 1,200th of the 1,205 EJK cases recorded by Karapatan under the nine years of Gloria Arroyo’s presidency. It also helped that in 2007, when the EJK incidents had reached 822, UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial killings Philip Alston submitted a damning report to the United Nations that called for a stop to the killings; and then Chief Justice Reynato Puno convened a National Consultative Summit on (EJKs) and Enforced Disappearances to seek solutions to the problem. Among other remedial steps, the Supreme Court instituted the writ of amparo, writ of habeas data, and other court-protection measures.

The writ of amparo issued by the Puno court, granting protection to the key witness against retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan in the abduction and disappearance of two UP students in 2006, contributed in a big way to Palparan’s being convicted for the crime.

Sadly, however, under the Duterte regime, efforts by human rights defenders – now targeted for red-tagging, harassment, and threats to their life and security, including Karapatan and the National Union of People’s Lawyers – appear to be encountering technicality-based obstacles in seeking court protection via the writ of amparo.

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Published in Philippine Star
July 27, 2019

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