June 28, 2007

Web of lies

De facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances and her administration’s continuing inaction despite increasing disclosures as well as hard evidence that military/police personnel are the perpetrators show that Mrs. Arroyo tolerates, if not approves, of the extrajudicial killings despite her belated statements condemning these.

The fact is, the recommendations of Amnesty International, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and even the Malacanang-created Melo Commission all pointing to state agents as perpetrators have not been substantially acted upon.

Human Rights Watch in its 28 June 2007 report on the Philippines said: “President Arroyo announced a wealth of new measures in the wake of the Melo Commission’s conclusions and recommendations, but the president’s initial efforts to keep the Commission report secret raises serious concerns about the political will to enforce these measures. In the end, it is actions that will speak louder than words, and the only real indication of the government’s commitment to end these killings will be when the perpetrators are finally held to account in a court of law.”

Recently, Chief Justice Reynato Puno and Senate Minority Leader Francis Pangilinan warned of dire consequences if the extrajudicial killings and abductions are not stopped. They condemned these human rights violations as abominable and constitute nothing less than the complete breakdown of the rule of law.

Chief Justice Puno said, "The extrajudicial taking of life is the ultimate violation of human rights. It cannot be allowed anywhere, and it has to be resisted everywhere.” He pointed out that the unsolved murders had given “a black eye to the country -- and the backlash is especially on the executive department.”

Mr. Pangilinan for his part called on Mrs. Arroyo, as the head of the country’s security forces, to get to the bottom of the murders of activists and their supporters or be ultimately held accountable just like former Argentina President Isabelita Peron, who is now under house arrest in Spain for her alleged involvement in the formation of death squads in Argentina during her presidency that began in 1976.

Malacanang’s unfazed response to newspaper reports that three military generals have implicated the government in the summary executions is once more that of denial. AFP Chief Hermogenes Esperon attempts to skirt the issue by hiding behind the sheer legal technicality that government cannot respond to what it considers unsubstantiated charges from unidentified sources.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and Mr. Esperon’s definition of command responsibility as “applicable only to military officers who are two ranks higher than their subordinates who committed the crime” is another poor attempt to clear the Commander-in-chief and the AFP high command of any responsibility.

Is the Arroyo government saying that the Commander-in-chief has no way of finding out who the three generals are or who else was in that alleged command conference where extrajudicial killings were said to have been given an official stamp of approval? Do Mrs. Arroyo’s henchmen want us to believe that she is helpless in digging deeper into the damaging allegations?

Mrs. Arroyo appears to be increasingly entangled in her own official web of lies. The more she denies knowing of military and police atrocities, the more she is forced to admit her own inability to rule. If the three generals’ expose is true and Mrs. Arroyo is not aware it happened, then the Commander-in-chief is not in command. If true and Mrs. Arroyo has full knowledge, then she is directly responsible for the extrajudicial killings and other grave human rights violations.

Outrage, long pent up and mounting, is bound to explode over the killings, unabated by universal condemnation and earnest appeals.

In the short-term, it can find expression in public support for the trailblazing efforts of the Puno Supreme Court to use the judiciary’s “expanded powers” under the 1987 Constitution as a guardian of civil liberties and human rights. This would include “new rules” to address the almost insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of the investigation or prosecution of state-engineered crimes committed in the name of fighting insurgency and “terrorism”.

That outrage may also bring about the popular will and force that could oust the fascist criminals from power and put a stop to the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.###

Reply to PDI Editorial "Plundered watch"

Mr. Jorge Aruta
Opinion Editor, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Dear Sir,

Having been the subject matter of your newspaper’s editorial, “Plundered watch” last June 21, allow me to clarify the position of Plunderwatch and Bayan on the plunder case against former President Joseph Estrada and correct misimpressions that the editorial may have caused among your readers.

The editorial’s allegation that I and Plunder Watch "kept away" from Mr. Estrada’s plunder trial due to a "tactical alliance" with the latter are untrue and unfair.

Plunder Watch and Bayan have not given up on their stand against plunder, be it by Mr. Estrada or any other government official, past, present or future.

Plunder Watch filed a case with the Ombudsman against Mr. Estrada based on testimonial and documentary evidence disclosed in the unfinished impeachment trial at the Senate. We did so, on the belief there were enough grounds to hold him liable for the crime of plunder as well as to give him his day in court.

We wanted justice to be served. We sought the successful prosecution of the case and Mr. Estrada’s conviction solely on the basis of evidence presented. It was a way of making high government officials accountable for their wrongful acts as well as to serve as a strong warning to others.

Throughout the early years of the trial, we upheld the position that no special treatment be accorded the accused especially in exchange for some political accomodation to Malacanang. We mobilized many times at the Supreme Court when the constitutionality of the plunder law was questioned until the law was upheld.

Plunderwatch was eventually excluded and marginalized from the plunder case by the Prosecution itself. From having access to information on how the case would be prosecuted, what critical junctures were anticipated and when mass protest and expert opinion were most needed, it was kept at bay and gradually shut out. Its views were not sought; its interventions, not welcomed.

We arrived at the conclusion that the case against Mr. Estrada was being tried on the basis of carrot-and-stick tactics and consequent blow-hot, blow-cold signals emanating from Malacanang that was using the trial as a means to force Mr. Estrada to accede to their political agenda. Subsequently we refused to be a party to the farcical and tainted trial proceedings. Towards the end of 2003, Plunderwatch altogether stopped attending the Sandiganbayan trial. Most of the individuals and groups that composed it, including Bayan, found themselves having to address the more pressing issues spawned by the Arroyo regime – the worsening cases of corruption and plunder, the systematic and nationwide slaughter of activists and the almost total subservience to US and foreign monopoly capital dictates.

The “Garci tapes” scandal broke out in June 2005, more than a year and a half after Plunderwatch disengaged from the Estrada trial. A broad array of political forces called for Mrs. Arroyo’s ouster. This marked the first time that Bayan member organizations and leaders marched in the streets with personalities and groups identified with the former President.

The principled position and actions of Plunderwatch have been documented and are there for anyone to scrutinize and take issue with. Neither Plunderwatch nor Bayan have compromised their stand on the Estrada plunder case -- then or now. Certainly not for any imagined monetary or political considerations arising out of a tactical alliance to oppose the Arroyo regime.

Is Mr. Estrada guilty of the crime of plunder? That was supposed to be determined through a fair and honest trial by an independent court of law. Plunderwatch did its part: it filed the case and tried its best to support the Prosecution and keep the public vigilant. But given the flawed and highly tainted Sandiganbayan trial, it is now difficult to achieve justice or even arrive at a credible resolution of the case.

Clearly, a conviction at this point will not serve to deter corrupt government officials who today abuse their power, cover-up their crimes and maintain their most illegitimate rule.

Yours truly,

Dr. Carol P. Araullo
Plunderwatch convenor and Bayan Chairperson

June 14, 2007

Postscript to Independence Day

The sounds and images of the country’s 109th independence day celebrations were so pedestrian and unremarkable, they struck me as reflective of the malaise of cynicism and despair over this republic’s state of affairs. Clearly, the lame duck Arroyo regime had neither the fervor nor the capacity to inspire Filipinos into celebrating their nationhood, that is why it even chose to move the non-working holiday a day earlier, based on the dubious benefits of encouraging local tourism via a three-day weekend.

Mrs. Arroyo used the occasion to repeat her tired refrain about setting aside political differences and uniting behind her administration to pursue the country’s so-called economic gains. She tried unsuccessfully to sweep aside the fact of her senatorial candidates’ debacle in the recently concluded elections and the indisputable message of waning public support for her remaining three years in office, much less her ill-disguised scheme to stay in power beyond 2010.

AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon was Mrs. Arroyo’s prominent escort in the wreath laying ceremonies. His praetorian guard-like presence reinforced the perception of her growing reliance on the military to prop up her flagging regime.

On the other hand, the speech of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Puno at the more proletarian environs of the Bonifacio monument in Caloocan City reflected on the state of Filipino people’s unfreedom. He dwelled on the pernicious effects of poverty, ignorance, a corrupt and undemocratic system of elections, extrajudicial killings and other forms of social injustice.

While decidedly more candid about the economically backward and politically sordid situation in the country today, 109 years after gaining freedom from Spanish colonialism, the Chief Justice missed out on the question of the country’s continued domination in almost all spheres of national life by another former and indisputably more powerful colonizer, the United States of America.

It would seem that of all the holidays there is nothing more meaningless than Independence Day. It has become common knowledge, to the point that it is taken for granted, that the Philippines is economically dependent on and politically subservient to foreign powers, especially the US. This partly explains why Independence Day has been reduced to parades and speeches and why public interest has visibly waned. One need only recall some of the significant and even highly dramatic, if not scandalous, instances to underscore the point.

The RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allows US troops and war materiel unhampered entry, unregulated activity and indefinite stay in any part of Philippine territory barely raises the hackles of supposedly patriotic political leaders, whether they are pro-administration or opposition.

Instead we have the sorry spectacle of the Arroyo administration, caving in to US demand that a US soldier, convicted of raping a Filipina while on rest and recreation in a former US naval base, be turned over to US custody while his case is on appeal, contrary to the decision of a sovereign Philippine court.

Recently, we learned that FBI agents, taking part in one of the innumerable joint war exercises carried out under the VFA, were involved in the investigations on the suspected “terrorist” bombing in North Cotobato last week. They had in fact declared the incident as more of an extortion rather than a terrorism case. Why FBI agents are given free reign to do investigative work inside the country without a clear basis and parameters for doing so is not explained to the public.

Even the kidnapping of an Italian priest in Zamboanga City by an alleged break-away group of the MILF is made the occasion to bring in US spy planes to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the Western Mindanao area -- and who knows what other part of Philippine territory. Quite matter-of-factly, US military and police operatives are all over the country conducting police work, including counter-insurgency operations, all in the guise of international cooperation in countering terrorism.

Do we remember the pricey Venable contract entered into by Malacanang with a US lobby firm that boiled down to engaging the services of a foreign, i.e. US, company to raise funds and generate political support in Washington for overhauling the Philippine Constitution, a decidedly internal matter for Filipinos?

The legislative records are strewn with examples of US intrusions into law making. There is the US and other foreign governments lobbying for the passage of the draconian Anti-Terrorism Law that is replete with provisions that violate basic civil, political and human rights guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution, Philippine jurisprudence and international law.

Regarding the ATL, Senator Joker Arroyo, who prides himself as being a staunch human rights defender, justifies the passage of the bill by saying that it is a toothless law that would please the US. He thus exposed the real motive for Congress to fast-track final approval. In contrast, it failed to pass a bill that would bring down the prices of basic medicines, due to the conspicuous lobbying by multinational, especially US, pharmaceutical corporations.

The Arroyo regime’s inherent servility to US dictates, highlighted by its self-serving need to maintain US backing for its tenuous hold on power, provides the rationale for its blind allegiance to the US-led so-called war on terror. This has had far-reaching consequences: her regime’s militarist approach to the intractable armed conflict with the communist-led New People’s Army, the scuttling of the peace talks with the National Democratic Front and the murderous counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, patterned after the US Oplan Phoenix used in the Vietnam war, that has killed hundreds of unarmed activists, their supporters and innocent bystanders.

The common tao is now aware, more than ever, that the government is protecting foreign economic interests at his expense. It is worth recalling that the Arroyo government's recourse in resolving the grave fiscal and financial crisis in 2004 was to raise the tax burden on the people while creating more incentives for foreign capital, such as mining multinationals, so as to improve its credit rating and be able to continue borrowing foreign funds.

Indeed, we have not even delved into the socio-cultural effects that US neocolonialism has wrought on Philippine society and the Filipino psyche.

Filipinos have still a long way to go in grasping the profoundly destructive effects of the historical and continuing lack of independence that we suffer as a nation and as a people. Only by doing so, can an independent path towards prosperity, social justice and equality be finally taken by our people, and Freedom Day celebrations attain true meaning and substance.###

*Published in Business World

15-16 June 2007

June 06, 2007

Smoking gun

In undemocratic, politically repressive societies such as ours, cases of forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing by state forces, almost always end up in the waste basket of law enforcement agencies. This is not surprising, especially when closer scrutiny discloses that far from being exceptional and isolated instances of abuse, such cases stem from a militarist internal security policy coupled with a scorched earth, leave-no-quarter, counterinsurgency program that brooks no dissent, even legal and unarmed, against the ruling regime and status quo.

Victims and their families end up facing a blank wall when witnesses are intimidated, harassed into silence, or themselves killed; the police botch the investigation, cover up the crime and absolve the prime suspects; government prosecutors are unenthusiastic about building up a case or deliberately undermine it; judges are pressured or enticed to dismiss any cases that reach the courts no matter how meritorious; and the highest civilian and military authorities persist in wallowing in what the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings describes as a “state of denial.”

It is not for want of leads that the authorities come up empty handed and declare their investigation stymied. In the case of the “Erap 5”, followers of the former President Joseph Estrada were kidnapped by armed men from a house in the heart of Quezon City (QC) and later turned up shaken and severely tortured, in the custody of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, only after a high-profile effort by Senator Jinggoy Estrada to have the men surfaced. No heads rolled in that case, not even the torturers who tried to beat the “Erap 5” into confessing that they were the top-level communists the government is hunting down.

Another celebrated case is the abduction of the activist son of journalist and much admired freedom-fighter Joe Burgos. Despite many eyewitnesses in a crowded QC mall, the kidnap vehicle being traced to the army’s 56th infantry battalion headquarters, appeals by big names such as former President Corazon Aquino and quiet lobbying by European Union governments, Jonas Burgos remains missing close to six weeks since the incident.

Perhaps to fend off international flak over the unsolved political killings during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s current trips abroad, Malacanang has taken the highly unusual move of directly intervening in the desaparecidos case, with no less than Executive Secretary Ermita, who claims to be a family friend, belatedly promising to take action.

Last May 27, Naval Intelligence Security Forces (NISF) and purported elements of the Cavite provincial police abducted United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Pastor Berlin Guerrero in Binan, Laguna, in full view of his wife and three children. He had just come from the local church where he had been serving for the last two years.

He was subsequently turned over to the Cavite Provincial Police Office at Camp Gen. Pantaleon Garcia in Imus, Cavite -- beat up, dirtied and still blindfolded -- together with his laptop (with his personal files deleted and alleged subversive materials uploaded) and other confiscated personal belongings. The police merely noted that the pastor was arrested by virtue of a 1992 arrest warrant, conveniently overlooking the true facts and circumstances behind his terrible ordeal.

The abductors, with the connivance of the police, are trying to make it appear that the arrest was in accord with law. But one does not have to be a lawyer to see clearly, from Rev. Guerrero's and other eyewitness accounts, that the "arrest" was anything but lawful.

The abductors were not in uniform. They did not introduce themselves as officers of the law. They did not show Rev. Guerrero any arrest warrant even when he demanded one. They used guns, pointed it at him and his family, with one of the assailants hitting him in the nape. They dragged him to a van with covered-up plate, brought him to a safe house where he was tortured and threatened with death unless he incriminated himself and others to be ranking officers of the Communist Party of the Philippines. His whereabouts were hidden from his family and lawyers so that the abductors could do their worst.

Several questions beg to be asked. Why was the arrest done by military men and not the police? The official documents clearly indicate this: the NISF elements were merely "assisted” by two members of the provincial police. According to Police Senior Superintendent Fidel Posadas, Rev. Guerrero was first brought to the NISF NCR office “for documentation and to evaluate the tactical significance to national security (of) the items found in his possession.” That Rev. Guerrero was "turned over" to the police the following day clearly indicates it was not police authorities that had “served” the warrant for his arrest.

Why did the police officers not immediately investigate or at least report the irregular manner by which the "arrest" was effected and that he was evidently tortured? Normally, turnover includes a document saying subject is in "good condition", i.e. with a medical certification by competent authorities. Under the circumstances, if they were not part of the cover-up, should not the police have immediately filed a complaint against the NISF?

Why have the authorities, including the Police Directorate, the Department of Interior and Local Government and Malacanang, not come out even with the name of the unit of the NISF and the identities of the operatives, much more taken steps necessary to determine who gave the orders to abduct and torture Rev. Guerrero?

More interestingly, who gave the orders to "surface" him and turn him over to the police? By all indications, the abductors had not the least intention to do so, until "someone upstairs" gave the order, perhaps anxious not to have another Jonas Burgos case in their hands while Mrs. Arroyo was Down Under trying to sell an economically robust, peaceful and just Philippine society.

Why did Rev. Guerrero turn up alive, unlike the close to 200 others who have involuntarily disappeared under the Arroyo regime? Human rights advocates attribute this to the unrelenting local and international pressure on the government; for while Malacanang and military/police top brass persist in attributing these human rights violations to a supposed internal communist purge, no one is taking them seriously.

The bottom line is still this: any government worth its salt would put a stop to such killings. Mrs. Arroyo, Chief Executive and Commander-in-chief, is commonly and correctly perceived as tolerating, if not in fact abetting, such heinous crimes against her regime’s critics, dissenters and the common folk who just happen to be in the way.

For anyone seeking proof that the extrajudicial killings, frustrated assassinations, forced disappearances, tortures and massacres of progressives, activists and even bystanders are state policy, this case of Pastor Guerrero is the smoking gun. ###