Gov’t body to probe killings; can it ever deliver justice?

The Department of Justice has announced that an interagency body will investigate the extrajudicial killings, carried out one week apart this month, of peasant leader and peace consultant Randall Echanis, 71, and human rights cum health worker Zara Alvarez, 39, single mother of an 11-year-old girl.

Echanis was murdered along with his neighbor inside his rented apartment in Novaliches, Quezon City at past midnight on Aug. 10. Alvarez was shot dead while walking with two others to her boarding house in Barangay Mandalagan in Bacolod City in the evening of Aug. 17.

In both cases, the killings have been generally attributed to state security forces, which the authorities have perfunctorily denied.

The DOJ announced the twin probes amidst continuing denunciations, cries for justice and calls for independent and impartial investigations from various groups here and abroad. Specifically raised were appeals to the United Nations human rights bodies and the International Criminal Court to look into these cases. On Aug. 18, representatives of cause-oriented organizations, human rights and peace advocates gathered at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in a “Global Day of Action for Justice” to honor the lives and martyrdom of Echanis and Alvarez while denouncing their murder and all EJKs.

Notably, the two killings and the more than a hundred others under the Duterte government – 134 already, according to the human rights watchdog Karapatan – have been linked, through public statements, to President Duterte’s repeated provocations since 2017.

The Commission on Human Rights, in its report released last month on the situation of human rights defenders [HRDs] in the country, stated: “The President, through his pronouncements, created a dangerous fiction that it is legitimate to hunt down and commit atrocities against human rights defenders because they are enemies of the state.”

Thus, the constitutional body said, the prevailing climate of impunity in the violence inflicted upon HRDs is “largely attributable” to Duterte’s own words. On the latest killings, the CHR said it saw these as “a cause for concern, especially that the number of cases is still growing and justice is nowhere in sight.”

On its part, Karapatan, which claims Zara Alvarez as the 13th of its workers extrajudicially killed under the present dispensation, said: “We consider any pronouncement by the president and his minions, especially before the public, as inciting harm on and killing of activists and human rights defenders as direct orders for state forces. Any jeer, any comment, any post [on social media], any poster, and any case filed [against them] should be considered as acts of complicity or inducement.” Any unsolved case, it stressed, “is an act of tolerance or acquiescence.”

Bayan Muna, whose many leaders, organizers and campaigners have become victims of EJKs since 2001, said: “President Duterte is ultimately accountable for publicly threatening human rights activists and practically ordering their killing. Despite his cowardly denial of his involvement in EJKs [the denial was actually made by his spokesperson], he has not publicly withdrawn his threats against activists nor ordered the perpetrators to stop the killings.” The electoral party’s chairman, lawyer Neri Colmenares, urged the ICC to probe and file a complaint against Duterte over the activist killings carried out under his watch.

Now comes the DOJ spokesman saying that investigation on the Echanis killing is “already underway” with the composite team tasked to do the work given one month “within which to submit a report on its findings.” (Such a deadline of one month gives an impression of earnestness and trust in the competence of the investigators, some people say.) As regards the case of Alvarez, the spokesman said the probe body’s secretariat has already recommended its inclusion in its docket.

However, doubts have been raised over whether the investigating body can truly undertake an impartial investigation into the two latest EJKs and other cases. You’ll find the reasonable ground for these doubts after looking into the nature, composition and apparent inertia of the investigating body.

The probe body, created by Administrative Order No. 35, signed by then President B.S. Aquino III on Nov. 22, 2012, has quite a long name. It is called the “Inter-Agency Committee on Extra-legal killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty and security of persons”.

AO 35 invokes seven of the state policies under Article II of the 1987 Constitution valuing the “dignity of every human person”and guaranteeing “full respect for human rights,” which for lack of space I cannot list down here. It acknowledges that “throughout the years… there have been reported and validated violations of the above-declared rights of the individual.” These “have served to create an impression of a culture of impunity” wherein, it adds, “security establishments of the State and non-State forces have been accused of silencing, through violence and intimidation, legitimate dissent and opposition raised by members of civil society, cause-oriented groups, political movements, people’s and non-government organizations, and by ordinary citizens.”

There is need to revisit these unsolved cases, AO 35 says, whether committed as “part of an apparent government policy in the past or as recurring cases of unsanctioned individual abuse of power and authority by State and non-State forces under the present.” It declares as “paramount policy” to do away with these forms of political violence and abuses of power.

Who should implement such paramount policy? It’s the Inter-Agency Committee, headed by the justice secretary as chairperson, with the following members: the interior and defense secretaries, the presidential peace adviser, the head of the presidential human rights committee, presidential adviser on political affairs, and the respective chiefs of the AFP, PNP, and NBI. Note that at least five of nine members belong to the “security establishments of the State” implicated in HR violations sought to be stamped out. So can the probe body be expected to be impartial in investigating the killings?

Mind this: AO 35 mandates the Inter-Agency Committee to submit reports to the President after every six months “describing the inventory of cases according to category… the accomplishments and progress made for each case, or problems and obstacles encountered, highlighting problematic high-profile cases from past administrations and violations committed during the present administration, and further recommendations for any additional actions that may be taken by the President requiring coordination and common course of action with the (CHR), Ombudsman, Congress and Judiciary.”

Has anybody read or even heard about any such report having been submitted to the president, much less the disclosure of what such report says? I haven’t. Maybe Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara can enlighten us on this very crucial matter.

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Published in Philippine Star
August 22, 2020

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