March 17, 2007

Reign of terror

The vital flaw which undermines the utility of much of the (Philippine) judicial system is the problem of virtual impunity that prevails. This, in turn, is built upon the rampant problem of witness vulnerability. Thepresent message is that if you want to preserve your life expectancy, don't act as a witness in a criminal prosecution for killing… In a relatively poor society, in which there is heavy dependence on community and very limited real geographical mobility, witnesses are uniquely vulnerable when the forces accused of killings are all too often those, or are linked to those, who are charged with ensuring their security.
-- UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston

Siche Bustamante-Gandinao, a 56 year-old farmer, married with six children, daughter-in-law of slain Bayan Muna–Misamis Oriental provincial chairperson Dalmacio “Tatay Daki” Gandinao, herself a member of Bayan Muna and the Misamis Oriental Farmers Association, and a witness presented to UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston last February, was shot dead on 12 March, by an unidentified assailant as she walked home after harvesting crops with her husband and children. The place of the incident was only 50 meters away from an army detachment; the assailant reportedly fled in its direction.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, was quick to blame the New People’s Army (NPA) as responsible for the assassination: he claimed that Mrs. Gandinao had been cooperating with the military and was thereby targeted by the NPA for liquidation. He did not elaborate nor offer any proof of this claim.

The AFP has indeed made a habit of blaming any and all extrajudicial killings of activists on the communist-led guerilla army. Not only is the AFP “in denial”, as Mr. Alston pointed out, of any military/police involvement in the alarming spate of killings, Mrs. Arroyo’s generals have a ready culprit and so their response is only a press release away.

How can the AFP spokesperson say that Mrs. Gandinao has been cooperating with the military when just weeks before she had lost her father-in-law to killers whom the family suspect to be members of military-directed death squads? She had testified, at great risk to her own life, in a closed-door hearing conducted by Mr. Alston during his visit to Cagayan de Oro. Mrs. Gandinao gave the names of the men who had been casing Tatay Daki’s house days before he was murdered. She also said her father-in-law had warned her that she was in the AFP “order of battle” together with her sister, Divina Bustamante-Tina, and that this meant the two of them were already on the military’s “hit list”.

The kind of people who would malign a dead woman without batting an eyelash is the same kind who can kill without batting an eyelash. The callous disregard for the honor and dignity of a victim of extrajudicial killings, brazenly discarding the facts and turning the truth on its head, says it all for the AFP. That the Commander-in-Chief allows the military to repeat this outrageously fictitious line ad nauseam despite the clear findings of her own investigative body, the Melo commission, says it all for the Arroyo administration.

The killing of yet another witness to the extrajudicial killing of activists underscores the extreme vulnerability of such courageous yet apparently foolhardy individuals. What immediately comes to mind is the case of Marcelino “Ka Marcing” Beltran, president of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Tarlac and a survivor-witness of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of November 2004 who was gunned down in his own home.

As I wrote back then, when Ka Marcing testified before a fact finding mission three days before his cold-blooded murder, “(h)e was articulate, fearless, agitated, his words tumbling from his mouth as he narrated how he miraculously escaped the hail of bullets even as he helped carry the dying and the wounded to safety, away from the bloodthirsty police, military and private security forces who relentlessly pursued the fleeing strikers and rallyists with their guns, truncheons and boots.”

No honest-to-goodness investigation was ever conducted by the authorities. Ka Marcing’s family decided to move away quietly and not pursue justice for their father. To this day, the police have no suspects and no charges have been filed: the killers have gotten away again scot free.

According to Mr. Alston, “The Witness Protection Program is impressive on paper. In practice, however, it is deeply flawed and would seem only to be truly effective in a very limited number of cases. The result, as one expert suggested to me, is that 8 out of 10 strong cases, or 80% fail to move from the initial investigation to the actual prosecution stage.”

Thus the recent announcement by the Supreme Court that it will set up special courts to try cases of extrajudicial killings of activists and journalists, loudly applauded by Malacanang, appears to have little relevance to bringing an end to the reign of impunity in this country.

The military, the police, the justice department, the Melo Commission and Mrs. Arroyo herself all rue the alleged “lack of witnesses” as the main if not the only reason investigations into the killings do not prosper. They turn a blind eye to the well-founded distrust of government by the victims’ families who suspect the assassins to be men in uniform, the masterminds to be people in authority and the over-arching policy frame to be reflected in Oplan Bantay Laya, the government’s flawed counter-insurgency program.

They gloss over the proven danger for anyone who dare testify, especially against agents of the state, not to mention the inaccessibility, if not absence of, government resources to support witnesses and their families. They keep quiet about the fact that no human rights violator has been punished in this country despite the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the supposed restoration of democratic processes and the rule of law.

Most of all, they do not acknowledge that the highest accolades and quick promotions rendered, together with the stubborn refusal to investigate, the likes of Gen. Jovito Palparan -- notorious for bringing about a reign of terror and a long list of extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances while dutifully implementing the government’s counter-insurgency program – is the true measure of the Arroyo regime’s unwillingness to stop the killings.

Mrs. Arroyo can end the killings today, if she wanted to. ###

*Published in Business World
16-17 March 2007


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