Extrajudicial Killings and Sham Investigation

Sep. 02, 2006

The presidential order forming the commission is widely seen more as a political gimmick rather than as a major step toward stopping the extrajudicial killings. It was meant to mollify public outrage over the killings and clear the constitutionally impaired presidency of possible accountability.

By the Policy Studies, Publication and Advocacy Program
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)

MANILA — Unless the Melo Commission gets to the bottom of the extrajudicial killings, it will suffer the same fate as previous presidential probe bodies. The task that challenges the commission is to make itself credible by holding an impartial and independent investigation of the political killings even if this would mean summoning the president for command responsibility as the armed forces commander-in-chief.

The commission was formed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on Aug. 21 the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino to investigate the spate of extrajudicial killings that, since 2001, have claimed the lives of 740 civilians as well as the disappearance of 180 others. Although under Administrative Order 157 the commission is authorized to summon witnesses and to deputize military, police and justice officials, it is unclear whether this includes the power to summon top government officials alleged to have a key role in the killings.

Suspected to be behind the killings are military death squads and paramilitary and police forces. Victims families, cause-oriented groups and rights watchdogs allege that the killings of church leaders, party-list organizers, youth activists, lawyers and rights volunteers are part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL or operation plan freedom watch). Designed to end the 37-year-old leftist armed struggle, this internal security plan had been approved by Arroyos Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security (COC-IS).

After a long silence, Mrs. Arroyo was forced to form the commission on the heels of strong concerns about the killings raised by Amnesty International (AI), Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Asian Human Rights Council (AHRC) and other reputable international organizations. Church and lawyers groups and legislators in the United States have also urged President Bush to withdraw support for the Philippine president, who just weathered a second impeachment in Congress on charges of violating the Constitution, betrayal of public trust and graft and corruption.

In September, the UN Commission on Human Rights convenes in Geneva to receive and hear complaints on the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. The results of the Geneva hearings could affect the membership of the Philippines in the new UN Human Rights Council to the embarrassment of the president herself who is set to attend the UN session in October.

The presidential commission is headed by Jose Melo, 74, a former Supreme Court associate justice. Panel members are: Catholic Bishop Camilo Gregorio, 66; National Bureau of Investigation Director Nestor Mantaring, 58; Jovencio Zuo, 61, the justice departments Chief State Prosecutor; and Nelia Gonzalez, 82, of the University of the Philippines Board of Regents. Bishop Gregorio has declined the invitation amid charges in the church community that the body could be another rubber stamp.

The magnitude of the killings is enormous, unmitigated and systematic raising suspicions — not without basis — that these are masterminded by high authorities and sanctioned by or at least known to the president. Thus the task of the Melo Commission is not just to ferret out the truth but to serve justice by making sure that both the executioners and architects are hailed to court.

To address this daunting task, the commission should have the full powers and authority to investigate and get into the bottom of the case which also means being able to summon top authorities including the president and her generals for their possible role in the killings.

However, there is little independence or impartiality to be expected from the commission. At least three of its members, including Melo and Gonzalez, are Pampangueos who hail from the same province as the president. Melo once worked as assistant to Mrs. Arroyos late father, President Diosdado Macapagal. Both Mantaring and Zuo are under the Department of Justice (DoJ) which has done nothing to seriously investigate the killings despite complaints, testimonies and evidences filed by the victims relatives. The department itself has prejudged the cases with Secretary Raul Gonzalez calling them as necessary collateral damage in the campaign against insurgency. Nelia Gonzalez, according to sources from the UP administration, is Mrs. Arroyos protg and mole in the powerful Board of Regents.

The association of many if not all members of the commission with the appointing authority thus stains the integrity and impartiality of the body. This being so, the probers cannot expect victims relatives, rights volunteers and witnesses to pin any hopes on the investigation.

Thus, the presidential order forming the commission is widely seen more as a political gimmick rather than as a major step toward stopping the extrajudicial killings. It was meant to mollify public outrage over the killings and clear the constitutionally-impaired presidency of possible accountability.

What the president should have done, as one senator said, is to immediately issue an order to stop the killings. The Melo Commission may just likely be another obstacle to addressing the issue and in dispensing justice.

The people will need to brace themselves for the harsh reality of continued political killings. (davaotoday.com)

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