Summary Executions Intensifies in Mindanao
Volume 20 Number 2
Friday, 30 June 2006 00:00

Daniel Conejar
Island Coordinator for Mindanao
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines

We see a nation where individuals, especially journalists, are murdered for telling the truth; where selfishness and lust for power are paraded as virtues; where the youth, who are the hope of the motherland, are pilloried as upstarts for heckling impostors, and we do nothing. – Conrado de Quiros

If we could map out the spots of summary execution in the country, it is in Mindanao where most incidents happened. Davao City remains the capital of summary executions; local newspapers have already lost count of the unsolved killings that happened there and has tragically become the order of the day that seems acceptable and concerns nobody anymore. We have observed how summary execution terrorized and silenced the people as much as during martial law. The only difference is that now the people are more silenced than terrorized - a seeming tolerance and justification for killing if it is for the preservation of social and political order. That is why we got an irresponsible statement from our Justice Secretary that collateral damage is inevitable, a pending anti-terror bill which disregards due process as a rule of law and a proposed charter change that regards human rights more as our duties than as a state responsibility. These are what the present administration wants us to believe and accept.

This year, two of the latest incidents of summary executions in the country happened in Mindanao which greatly shocked the country and the international community. It pertains to the killing of two couples who were active media practitioners and were openly critical of the present administration.

Last May 9, Rev. Jemias Tinambacan and wife Marilou, on board their KIA van on their way home, were ambushed by a handful of men along the national highway in Barangay Mubod, Oroquieta city at dusk. Marilou survived and identified one of the perpetrators as a certain Mamay Guimalan, allegedly a military agent. The couple had been actively involved in human rights and environmental advocacy work.

Rev. Tinambacan was the resident pastor of UCCP Calaran, Calamba, Misamis Occidental, an active member of the Gloria Step Down Movement of Misamis Occidental and the provincial chairperson of a progressive party-list group named Bayan Muna.

Following the incident on June 19 in Kidapawan City, in almost the same manner and circumstance, George Vigo and wife Maricel, both journalists, on board their motorcycle on their way home, were gunned to death.

Vigo was a contributor to the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) and hosted a radio program every Monday by an NGO known as Community Family Service International (CFSI) while Maricel also hosted a program of Representative Lala Talino Santos every Sunday over DXND. The couple also contributed to the creation of the Federation of Reporters for Empowerment and Equality (FREE).

Vigo also acted as executive director of the Peoples’ Kauyahan Foundation, Inc. (PKFI), a non-government organization which initiates peace fora and dialogues in the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

Their perpetrators are still at large and the investigation of their cases seems to be going nowhere.

The killings has gone out of proportion in the past two years and in an alarming rate in the past four months as reported by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

AHRC counted Tinambacan as the 15th church worker killed while Vigo and wife were the latest casualties of the 44 journalists slain throughout the country and among the 19 journalists slain from Mindanao during the administration of Gloria Arroyo. Moreover, the National Union of Journalists Philippines (NUJP) reported that this year “six journalists have been killed in the Philippines”. While the 81 journalists killed since 1986 are “more than those killed under the 14-year Marcos dictatorship. The Philippines was second only to Iraq in the number of journalists who died there last year.

This year too the ranking remains unchanged”.

Killings intensifies and excuses no one
What has become of our nation? Peace advocates, media practitioners, political oppositions, human rights defenders, Muslim religious leaders and church workers, even criminals all alike and anybody who criticizes and differs opinion with the state are all labeled as anti-development, communist sympathizers, enemies of the state, and worst, terrorists. They are fortunate to live another day and are unsafe even inside the comforts of their homes or inside heavily-guarded detention cells - the infamous Bicutan massacre exemplifies this.

Over the past five years under the Arroyo administration, TFDP has noted that not only torture, but summary execution, as well, has become systematic and widespread. They are intimately linked to anti-insurgency cum anti-terrorist drive, discrimination, perpetuation of power and suppression of the truth. They become twin weapons to instill fear. The staggering figures of 105 cases of torture and close to 700 victims of summary executions far surpass a certain period in which they could be committed during the martial law years. These are only tip of the iceberg if victims of lawlessness brought about by the constant war in Muslim Mindanao and extra-judicial killings against petty criminals perpetrated by local government leaders in the disguise of maintaining peace and order are added into the list.

Bringing perpetrators to justice

Many of these killings have been referred for urgent actions at the national and international levels calling on the government for intervention; but, until now, nothing has happened. Recently, as it has never happened before, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) came up with a bold statement. It held the Philippine government responsible for the killings for not doing its best to investigate and to institute preventive measures. Although the present administration has investigated those incidents, little progress has been made and most of the alleged perpetrators remain scot-free. One could not help but think that they are kept and protected as though the state laps their hands up to cleanse the blood. It seems that the present administration has become inured to all the criticisms hurled against it for doing less than what is expected of it. By this, we are drawn to despair that there is no way for perpetrators to be brought to justice. The situation demonstrates the lack of political will, by acquiescence and non-commitment on the part of the state, to solve the problem at hand.

The culture of impunity thrives in this condition. It is the failure to bring to justice and punish those responsible for serious violations of human rights and in creating an environment where agent of state, such as the police or the military who are frequently held responsible or indirectly held liable, can continue to create violations without fear of arrest, prosecution or punishment.

The reasons for failure are the phlegmatic response of peace officers in investigating the cases of summary executions and the loopholes in the witness protection program or the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act (RA 6981). Key witnesses do not appear in court due to fear for their lives and are hesitant or not willing at all to put oneself under the protection program. It is hard to convince witnesses to reveal themselves or avail of the witness protection program if the one running it is a state institution or the state which is itself the primary suspect.

Likewise, these sources of fears are used by police officers to argue that the case is stalled due to the unwillingness of witnesses to testify or lack of witnesses. Even in celebrated cases, such as graft and corruption against a certain government official, the person who turned as state-witnesses is not even keen on putting oneself under the state-run witness protection program. Concerned private institution or private individuals are preferred to offer more protection. There is a high level of concern regarding this and since the government cannot remedy this, civil society is therefore challenged.

An alternative witness protection program must be sought and should be a call, especially for human rights communities and religious organizations to provide safe houses or sanctuaries for witnesses and survivors wherein they can find security, peace of mind and rehabilitation. This is asking too much from the civil society but this is not impossible.

Another is for the surviving victims and witnesses to avail free legal assistance from among the groups of lawyers who are willing to work pro bono for the victims of summary execution. An example of this is the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which since Martial Law, has fearlessly taken on such cases. Recently, members of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) have trooped themselves in various parts of the country to denounce strongly the massive human rights violations happening now. We have also learned of the newly formed BangsaMoro Lawyers League which have their hands full with cases of human rights violations. These are where support for free legal assistance can be obtained.

Finally, the CHR must add more substance on the momentum it has generated. It must sustain its initiatives to play an active role by coordinating its work with various government agencies and non-government organizations by ensuring immediate investigation on reported cases and filing of cases and indemnification of the survivors and families of victims.

Taking up responsibilities to naught
Suspended during the martial law years, the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) about twenty years ago on October 23, 1986 following the people power revolution, marked the Philippines as truly a democratic country where full respect and protection of human rights is expected. It influenced largely the making of the 1986 Philippine Constitution otherwise known as the Freedom Constitution which incorporates human rights among its provisions particularly under the bill of rights. Ratification of the Optional Protocol of ICCPR and various other international human rights instruments followed. Domestic mechanisms such as the establishment of the Commission on Human Rights and the implementation of the witness protection program, even with limitations, are landmarks. Finally last May 10, 2006, the Philippine government was elected to the newly-reorganized UN Human Rights Council. But instead of taking genuine action to absolve itself from accusations of state-terrorism, the Philippine government wants to fast track the enactment of an anti-terror law and tinker on the human rights provisions of the constitution by changing the constitution. When the state condones and does nothing it demonstrates the worst kind of terrorism because the state has now transformed itself from being a protector to perpetrator.

Where can justice be found?
The above-mentioned proposed remedies may not ensure justice. There remains problems in the institution of justice in the country. For instance is the case of a couple, Bacar Japalali and wife Carmen, who were summarily executed in Tagum City in 2004. Despite the overwhelming evidence against their perpetrators and direct intervention by the Ombudsman for the Military in filing the Information, the judge refuses to issue a warrant of arrest against their perpetrators until now for the sheer reason of lack of evidence which is contrary to facts and bulk of evidence at hand. Somehow, impunity pervades every step of the way towards the attainment of justice. Thus, a case could be filed for prosecution but the guarantee for justice maybe impossible.

Other means to ensure justice needs to be found for accountability, reparations and reforms. As we have observed, the international human rights community has been drawn to the phenomenal cases of summary execution in the country and in fact, from their deep concerns and constant intervention where many may have obtained inspiration to continue the pursuit for justice. The fight against impunity has intensified in the last decade and has been raised to another level. To supplement or complement national courts and perhaps even replace it for the prosecution of grave human rights abuses, 60 States ratified in 1998 the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The new international court is universal, permanent and independent prosecution body for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

As it will exercise jurisdiction only when there is a failure of state to bring those responsible to justice, the human rights violation cases, particularly torture and summary execution in the country may fall under its jurisdiction as these are crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, our government has not ratified the Rome Statute until now, instead, it signed a Bilateral Immunity Agreement (BIA) with the US. The RP-US BIA gives immunity to any US or Filipino citizen for prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Once again we are deprived of a possible venue for redress. To lobby incessantly for the ratification of ICC by the Philippine Government is another great option to take.

The truth cannot be forever drowned and there is always hope for justice. TFDP believes that despite the killings, more and more courageous individuals will continue to speak the truth about the present ills and misconduct of the state. Freedom of expression cannot be suppressed especially when it is a shout for justice.

The killing stops inside the death chambers and so the killings on the streets must stop too. Only then we can say that the rights of everyone is ensured and each person will be secure.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 September 2009 19:00

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