|Written by John Hall, The Wall Street Journal|
|Monday, 21 January 2008 19:00|
After years of absent political leadership – or worse – on human rights in the Philippines, help is finally coming, and from an unexpected source. A recent appeals court ruling suggests that judges are starting to take a greater interest in the military's problematic rights record. They're also asserting their power to address the issue.
This development comes courtesy of a case involving two farmers, brothers Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo who were abducted in February 2006, detained for 16 months and allegedly tortured. The Court of Appeals found that the brothers had been abducted by members of the Philippine Army and security forces. The Court of Appeals concluded the military had suspected the brothers were members or sympathizers of the communist New People's Army. All the evidence that's come to light suggests this was unlikely.
Their case has become something of a cause celebre, but it's by no means unusual in a country where extrajudicial kidnapping, torture and killing is a common method employed by the military to combat "ideological radicals" and other undesirable elements. Local human-rights group Karapatan has estimated that there have been 800 political assassinations since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. The United Nations's special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, reported in February 2007: "These killings have eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists and land reform advocates, intimidated a vast number of civil society actors and narrowed the country's political discourse."
Mr. Alston was blunt in blaming the Philippine Army for playing a direct role: "The Philippine military is in a state of denial concerning the numerous extrajudicial executions in which soldiers are implicated." His report dismissed as "strikingly unconvincing" and "cynical" Manila's claims that the assassinations were "purges" carried out by communist insurgents.
Politicians have struggled to find the will to crack down on the military, despite mounting international pressure. In August 2006, President Arroyo – under strong pressure from the European Union – established the Melo Commission to investigate the wave of political killings. But some are questioning the commission's effectiveness. Human Rights Watch has noted that due to "concerns about the Commission's independence and fears of retribution, eyewitnesses, victims, and human rights organizations did not participate in the hearings," while police and military representatives did. The security forces "presented views that demonstrated a degree of denial and lack of concern for accountability."
Meantime, the Arroyo administration has been hard at work trying to paper over its record on the international stage. In the face of US congressional threats to withhold some military aid, the Philippine government has launched a vigorous public relations campaign to influence Washington and to convince Congress that it is taking seriously demands that the political violence should be brought to a halt. To that end, the Arroyo administration has approached the white shoe law firm of Covington & Burling to lobby on its behalf.
Which is where the Manalo brothers come in: Following their escape from their captors, they took the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court for a temporary restraining order to ensure they would not be arrested or have their rights violated further by the military authorities. The Supreme Court agreed, and when the brothers filed a writ of amparo to request documents and evidence from the military relating to their abduction, the matter was sent to the Court of Appeals. On Dec. 26, Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin of the Philippine Court of Appeals took the even more unusual step of ruling in their favor.
The ruling is precedent-setting in several respects. Most importantly, it assigns blame right at the top. Justice Bersamin pointed the finger of blame for the Manalos' ordeal at retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan. As the ruling stated: "General Palparan's participation in the abduction was also established. At the very least, he was aware of the petitioners' captivity at the hands of men in uniform assigned to his command." Justice Bersamin concluded that the general's "knowledge of the dire situation of [the brothers] during their long captivity at the hands of the military personnel under his command bespoke of his indubitable command policy that unavoidably encouraged and not merely tolerated the abduction of civilians without due process of law and without probable cause."
Gen. Palparan has long been accused by human-rights groups like Karapatan of playing a central role in the violent campaign aimed at leftist civilians. The Melo Commission concluded in January 2007 that "The rise of killings somehow became more pronounced in areas where General Palparan was assigned. The trend was so unusual that General Palparan was said to have left a trail of blood or bodies wherever he was assigned. He 'earned' the moniker 'Berdugo' ["executioner"] from activists and media groups for his reputation." The commission concluded that Gen. Palparan's "numerous public statements caught on film or relayed through print media give the overall impression that he is not a bit disturbed by the extrajudicial killings of civilian activists, whom he considers enemies of the state. He admits having uttered statements that may have encouraged the said killings." He's also politically well connected. As recently as President Arroyo's state of the nation speech in 2006, the president praised Gen. Palparan for his anti-insurgency efforts, claiming that he "will not back down until the darkness of terror gives way to the dawn of freedom."
The court also cut through the military's efforts to obscure the facts of the case. Justice Bersamin dismissed the military investigation of the incident as "superficial" and "one-sided" and added that despite Gen. Palparan's retirement from the active military, "we do not think that he was immune from inquiry or investigation or that he was exempt from any personal liability, if warranted" – another important precedent. "At the very least," the court noted, "General Palparan and his men . . . should have been subjected to a more intense investigation."
Justice Bersamin ordered Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperoh to provide the court with all official and unofficial reports of the military investigation, produce medical reports pertaining to allegations of torture, and confirm in writing the places where two Master Sergeants accused by the Manalo brothers of torturing them are assigned.
The stand taken by Justice Bersamin is a brave one. Anyone who openly criticizes the Philippine security forces is taking a risk. In 2006, Counsels for the Defense of Liberties – a group of lawyers and law students – concluded that the Philippines was among the most dangerous countries for lawyers. More than 20 lawyers have been killed since Ms. Arroyo took office, including Gil Gojol, shot and killed in December 2006 in Bicol. He was counsel to several leftist groups, and represented political prisoners charged by the military with acts of rebellion. Amnesty International has also reported on the problem: "An international fact-finding mission of lawyers and judges who visited the Philippines in June 2006 in response to reported extrajudicial killings of the legal profession within the context of a pattern of political killings, found that in cases of 15 lawyers and 10 judges killed since 2001 none of the perpetrators have been convicted."
Since June 2006 a further four judges have been murdered. The latest, Judge Roberto Navidad of the Calbayog City Regional Trial Court in Samar Province, was shot to death by an unidentified man on Jan. 14, 2008. Chief Justice Reynato Puno has released a statement that "the entire judiciary condemns the killing of Judge Navidad" and urges "the authorities to exert their best efforts for the immediate apprehension of those responsible."
In the face of this, Justice Bersamin has taken a highly visible, highly confrontational position against a former general. In granting the writ of amparo, Justice Bersamin is requiring senior government officials to provide specific documentation about the abduction of the Manalo brothers and not merely deny the allegations. This is an important legal precedent and a step toward transparency and an honest and public assessment of the role of the Philippine Army in the wave of political abductions and assassinations. He deserves more than just our praise. If the Arroyo regime is – as it claims – serious about ending the violence aimed at civilians it must do everything in its power to guarantee his future safety.
This case is worth watching. There is ample reason to be skeptical of the Arroyo administration. After all, Gen. Palparan himself had the vocal support of the president until last year. But perhaps – just perhaps – Justice Bersamin's stand against this general signals a new era for Manila. Critics and supporters of President Arroyo – not least in Washington – are waiting to see how this story will unfold both inside and outside Justice Bersamin's chambers.
[Mr. Hall is an associate professor and Director of the Center for Global Trade & Development, Chapman University School of Law, in Orange, California.]