June 18, 2010

Arrest Arroyo; free political prisoners!

Soon-to-be Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III asks for understanding that he is no “superman” and should be given at least three years to make good on his campaign promises. Some of those promises will soon come up against the reality that nothing short of a systems overhaul is required if the Aquino presidency is to make a difference. Yet two items can be immediately addressed -- that is, within the first 100 days – if Mr. Aquino sets his mind to prioritize them.

Mr. Aquino should have no qualms, no second thoughts, about setting into motion the arrest and prosecution of outgoing President Gloria Arroyo for plunder and gross human rights violations. After all, he was part of the group of Opposition congressmen who filed impeachment charges against Mrs. Arroyo twice. His mother, former President Cory, apart from calling for Mrs. Arroyo to resign, joined the march to the House of Representatives to push for Mrs. Arroyo’s impeachment.

Indeed, Noynoy’s anti-Arroyo, “good vs evil” campaign line won him a lot of votes while his accusation that his then closest rival, Sen. Manny Villar, had a secret, quid-pro-quo arrangement with Mrs. Arroyo may have caused Mr. Villar to slide down ignominiously to third place in the final votes tally.

It is to be expected that Mrs. Arroyo and her cohorts-in-crime will put up one hell of a political and legal fight (which is why she sought some kind of a political platform as a member of Congress). Yet Mr. Aquino can take heart in the fact that while die-hard fans and loyalists of President Estrada tried (but failed) to barricade his residence to prevent his arrest and even mounted a copycat “people power” siege of the presidential palace when he was already detained, it is unlikely that such a demonstration of residual popular support will take place once Mrs. Arroyo is served a warrant of arrest.

On the contrary, Mr. Aquino will earn plaudits, locally and internationally, and make his indelible mark in history if he is able to prove his determination to seek justice for all the victims of the corrupt and abusive Arroyo regime. He will in effect, dramatically break the reign of impunity for unspeakable crimes against the people and against humanity committed by high government officials, state functionaries and security forces under the Arroyo regime.

Definitely, the prosecution of Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal for plunder, extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations and electoral fraud should be on top of the Aquino administration's priorities. But equally urgent in terms of concretely and swiftly rendering justice to the victims is the immediate release of the hundreds who have been wrongly charged, arrested and are currently still languishing in jail on trumped-up criminal charges that are actually politically-motivated.

As of March 31 2010, there are 344 political prisoners documented by human rights organization, Karapatan, of whom 317 were arrested under Arroyo regime, 59 of whom are women and six are minors.

These include the Morong 43, whose illegal arrest, torture and detention are well-documented, publicized and widely condemned here and abroad.

The release of political prisoners will send a clear signal that Mr. Aquino has an understanding of the underpinnings of social strife and dissent in social injustice and political repression.

It will also show that Mr. Aquino wishes to clear the way for the resumption of formal peace talks with the revolutionary forces represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and lay the ground for achieving a just and lasting peace.

The recently published diary and letters of Angie Ipong, Garden Behind Bars, give a face to the festering issue of political prisoners. It tells the story of a 65-year-old church worker and veteran social activist who has been jailed at the Pagadian Provincial Jail for more than five years.

Ms. Ipong tells of her ordeal at the hands of the military men who arrested her on March 8, 2005. She was giving a seminar to farmers and women leaders on the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CAHRIHL), one of the landmark bilateral agreements reached in the government-NDFP peace talks.

She was missing for 13 days during which time she underwent torture while undergoing interrogation. She began a hunger strike from day one of her illegal arrest to force her captors to surface her and allow her to have access to her lawyer.

Beyond the grim and painful account of the inhumane treatment accorded her by the military, Ms. Ipong tells the reader about her background as a young peasant girl; how her parents struggled to eke out a living and put her through school; how she graduated with honors despite her socio-economic disadvantages; how she became a founder of the Missionaries Society of the Philippines and committed herself to church-based social action; and how later she became a political activist helping to uplift the peasantry.

As the daughter of farmers dispossessed of their small plot of land by poverty and indebtedness and thereby relegated to being tenants in their own land, she realized at a young age the meaning of class differences and social inequity. She also learned the virtue of hard work, of cooperative relations with her siblings and other poor families in her community and the altruistic way of life as a social justice worker.

In due time, she was introduced to the theology of liberation (originating from and popularized by progressives from the Latin American catholic church) and thereafter learned about the larger, more fundamental problems of Philippine society and the need for more thoroughgoing structural reforms.

She lost her husband, a devoted church worker and committed activist like her, in the sinking of the MV Cassandra but she found the strength to continue her work while raising their young daughter.

In prison, instead of succumbing to despair, loneliness, boredom and various illnesses that a crowded, unhealthy environment breeds, Angie spent her time turning a barren piece of land within the jail compound into a bountiful garden of vegetables and medicinal herbs that augmented the meager diet provided by the jail authorities. She also introduced income-generating projects to teach the value of work as well as meet some of the detainees’ material needs.

Most of all, she organized the inmates and instituted a system of meetings where they aired out and resolved grievances, discussed tasks and projects, and reflected on biblical passages and other articles from which they extracted lessons applicable to their lives and current situation in jail.

In this way, good values could be taught to the prisoners, many of them youngsters, who had become petty criminals or were accused of petty crimes as a consequence of poverty, the lack of opportunities and a faulty justice system.

Today, Angie is a model prisoner so much so that jail authorities acknowledge her contributions to improving jail conditions. Several cases against her have been dismissed but more have been filed since. Surely she deserves her freedom under a new dispensation that was put to power on the hope of meaningful change and the rendering of due justice to victims of the Arroyo nightmare. #

*Published in Business World
18-19 June 2010

June 11, 2010

More than meets the eye

The story could have come right out of an American-made suspense thriller with the mysterious death of a nondescript fellow followed by a suspicious cover-up by government officials and the murder of a likely whistleblower. It has the makings of a classic whodunit except that this time it’s for real. Thirty-three-year-old Gregan Cardeño, a native of Zamboanga Sibugay, was recruited by a private military contractor to work as an interpreter for US Armed Forces (USAF). On February 2, a day after he started work in a supposed AFP facility in Marawi City, he was found dead. The police called it a suicide and stopped investigating.

Less than two months later, Philippine Army Captain Javier Ignacio – a family friend who helped recruit Cardeño – was gunned down while on his way to a meeting with groups conducting an independent probe into the case. Ignacio, a member of the AFP Military Police, said he had vital information to share. He had earlier spoken of attempts by undisclosed parties to bribe him into keeping silent followed by death threats should he persist in seeking the truth behind Cardeño’s death.

One would think that the sudden death of a civilian employee of a USAF contractor would warrant a more careful, thoroughgoing and transparent investigation on the part of all concerned, i.e. the US military under whose authority Cardeño was operating, the AFP which controls the military camp where the incident occurred, as well as the police investigators who were called to the crime scene.

This did not happen. To this day, more than four months since the incident, the entire circumstances of Cardeño’s death have been inexplicably withheld from his family by both US and Philippine military officials. It is known that US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are on the case as well as the AFP’s Judge Advocate General’s Office but the family has been kept completely in the dark as to the results of their investigations.

Local police investigators have pursued the suicide angle to the exclusion of possible foul play. This despite the fact that a re-autopsy conducted by the Commission on Human Rights (upon the family’s request) affirms asphyxia by hanging as the cause of death but cannot rule out that someone else could have wrung the victim’s neck but made it appear like a suicide. Capt. Ignacio’s murder appears not to have pricked the interest of the police in so far as its possible connection to the Cardeño case.

What makes this more than just another unsolved crime are the circumstantial evidence pointing to something else going on, something worthy of an official cover-up by no less than two governments.

On paper, Mr. Cardeño was hired by Skylink Security and General Services to work as a security guard with the agency from Feb. 1 to April 30, 2010. The real nature of his employment, however, was as an interpreter for US troops; aside from Filipino and English, Cardeño was fluent in Tausug, Visayan, and Bahasa Indonesia.

Skylink was utilized by DynCorp International to hire locals for jobs with US troops in the Philippines. DynCorp is described in an Esquire article by journalist Tucker Carlson as “an American firm that specializes in high-risk contract work for the Pentagon and the State Department”,

According to Carlson, DynCorp had a peculiar track record. He wrote: “Pick an unsafe country and DynCorp is likely to be there. In Afghanistan, DynCorp bodyguards protect Hamid Karzai, the most imperiled president on earth. In Colombia, DynCorp pilots fly coca-killing crop dusters slow and low over drug plantations, an integral part of Washington’s Plan Colombia. DynCorp is in Kosovo, Israel (three of its employees were blown up and killed in Gaza last year), East Timor, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Liberia, and many other sketchy places. Last spring, DynCorp … came to Iraq.”

While told that he would be working in Camp Sionco in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, Cardeño was whisked to Marawi City instead. His sister, Carivel, found out about this on February 2 at 7:30 am through a text message from him. By 2:00 pm the same day, Cardeño called Carivel saying, “This is not the job I expected, this is so hard.” According to her, he sounded like he was crying. When asked what his actual job was, he did not reply. He asked Carivel to contact Skylink, ask for his salary, and request that he be pulled out of the “US military facility” where he had been assigned. He also said the only Filipinos working in the “US military facility” were himself and the cook, who goes home every afternoon. The call was then cut off.

Two hours later, Cardeño called his wife, Myrna, and said, “I'm in Marawi, they brought me here... I'm in a very difficult situation.” She advised him to return home after which the call was cut. Later that same day Cardeño called Myrna again, asking, “If ever I go home, would you still accept me?” Myrna asked him if he did anything wrong but before he could reply, the line went dead.

At around 2:00 pm the next day, Carivel received a call from her brother’s mobile phone. A certain SPO3 Ali Guibon Rangiris of the Marawi City Police told her that Cardeño hanged himself at the barracks of the Philippine Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade at Camp Ranao, Brgy. Datu Saber, Marawi City.

The police report on the incident identified Cardeño’s assignment to be with the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE), a unit of the US military, based in Camp Ranao.

According to an article in the Military Review by US Army Col. Gregory Wilson, “Anatomy of a Successful COIN Operation: OEF-Philippines and the Indirect Approach,” the work of LCE is as follows:
“Deployed at the tactical level, SF (special forces) advisory teams called liaison coordination elements (LCE) are small, tailored, autonomous teams of special operations personnel from all services. They advise and assist select AFP units in planning and fusing all sources of intelligence in support of operations directed at insurgent-terrorist organizations.”

According to the Leftist organization, Bayan, Cardeno’s death exposed the existence of an LCE unit based in Marawi City, a fact hitherto undisclosed to the public. It raises important questions about possible clandestine operations of US forces being conducted outside the purview of Philippine laws and even in violation of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

In addition, Bayan questioned the US forces' engagement of Filipino civilians for undisclosed operations or work, via private military contractors and local sub-contractors. What guidelines are being followed by both governments to ensure the rights of these workers are being protected and that labor laws are being followed?

We join the call of Cardeño’s family, human rights group Karapatan and Bayan for a thoroughgoing and impartial investigation into his death and the related killing of Capt. Ignacio. There should be full disclosure regarding the nature of the Philippine operations of private military contractor DynCorp and its subcontractor Skylink. A probe into the presence of US troops in Marawi City and other areas where they may be conducting clandestine operations is warranted together with full disclosure of the real nature of the LCE units deployed in Mindanao.

There is much more than meets the eye in the death of this Filipino who merely hoped to earn good money doing a seemingly benign, short-term job for the US military. This Independence Day is an auspicious date to bring national attention to a case that underscores the continued undermining, if not outright violation, of Philippine sovereignty by the presence of US military troops in the country.#

*Published in Business World
11-12 June 2010