Philippines: Escalating poll violence symptoms of a corrupted, rotten

May. 04, 2007

As the campaign period is ongoing and elections will be held on May
14 there is also an increasingly alarming trend of election-related
violence. Targeted killings and ambushes of sectoral and local
candidates, either a result of fierce political rivalry or threats,
had since been taking place–a cycle of violence that has become a
subconsciously acceptable fact of life in the Philippines’
electoral process. These are among the many instances of how the
country’s system had become corrupted and rotten, in particular
on security, investigation and prosecution matters.

The election period is the time where both allies and foes can either
turn against each other by way of exposing corrupt and illegal
practices. Whistle blowers and those who have personal knowledge of a
public official’s illegal acts while in position come out in
public in an effort to discredit candidates. Friends, relatives and
even family members become fierce foes in an attempt to eliminate any
threats to their political aspirations that might damage their
political standing. What we see are potential witnesses of criminal
acts committed by public officials coming forward, whatever their
motives are. The candidates are likewise so seriously threatened that
they have to seek protection from the police while campaigning, but
not all of them are lucky to receive protection and some are killed
either before receiving it.

In the event wherein witnesses, whistle blowers or political rivals
are killed, there is the likelihood that their case will go
unresolved and the killers unpunished. Firstly, the police
investigation process does not provide protection to witnesses to the
crime. Thus, there is likelihood that the police will focus seriously
on the political motive of the killing, rather than the possibility
that it could have been perpetrated by others who might have taken
advantage of the situation. Incidents like this, and to exploit the
ineffective investigation of the police, could be potential material
for political propaganda that could be seriously damaging even for
innocent persons. The intention of finding the truth is subverted by
the lack of witnesses, propaganda and the lack of the capability of
the police to investigate. The result is simply that the case will
not be solved.

Secondly, one of the reasons is as to why the witnesses delayed in
coming out in public. Obviously they find it suitable to do this
during an election period because they could at least obtain some
sort of protection, no matter how unofficial and negligible it is.
Any public officials and politicians would obviously ensure provision
of protection for individuals when they could gain something from
them, or boost their political standing and credibility. But soon
after the witnesses and whistle blowers would find themselves once
again out in the open once the politician has won. Unlike during the
election period, getting security and protection is completely
impossible for witnesses or any individuals facing threats. What is
feasible and practical in reality is informal protection–those
provided by politicians, influential persons, church organizations
and the like–but these are not official as provided by law–the
Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act (RA 6981). Still
witnesses in these situations faces serious risks and threats to
their lives.

Thirdly, even criminal and cases of corrupt practice proceed to
prosecution after the election period and aggrieved parties are in
power, still there is little assurance the perpetrators are
prosecuted or punished. The classic example was the assassination of
the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino during the Marcos regime.
Years after he was killed, his wife, Corazon, took over power by way
of the peaceful people’s revolt in 1986. But even after Corazon
was in power, the likelihood of her husband’s case being
resolved is negligible. There are allegations that the mastermind and
real perpetrators may have not been disclosed, and those prosecuted
have likewise professed innocence to the assassination. Whatever the
case is, the prosecution is delayed and inconclusive. This is the
fact of life in the country’s policing and prosecution system.

In the Philippines, the prosecution of perpetrators and offenders in
recent times has proven almost impossible. Not only due to extreme
delays and lack of resources, the ongoing practices of public
prosecutors are in itself arbitrary. In recent times, although the
law requires and the prosecutors are mandated to prosecute of all
unlawful offenses, the usual practice however is otherwise.
Prosecutors had taken up the practice of settling the disputes and
criminal cases outside court. This, presumably in an effort to
prevent the piling up of cases in court, they have become the arbiter
instead and the government directly endorses this as methods to
promptly and to speedy resolved cases. The prosecutors could find
this practice as a convenient excuse not to perform their duties.
Often prosecutors are even complaining of over criminalization of
offenses, and have already downplayed victims complaining of torture
as normal. The victims and complainants are often left with no option
but to settle amicably.

For victims and complainants who decided to settle cases outside
court and those vulnerable to being offered money, in most cases does
not mean they are no longer interested in seeking legal action. It is
the harsh situation and the systematic defects that frustrates them
and forced them to the corner to yield. In a condition of insecurity,
lack of protection, the delays and high cost in the prosecution of
cases, among others, the entrenched bad habit of “forgiving and
forgetting” have pierced into the fabric of Filipino society. It
is the impossibility of prosecuting perpetrators in a rotten criminal
justice system that forced victims to give up and yield. Nothing is
wrong with the witnesses, victims and complainants refusing or giving
up their cases, but it is the rotten system that forced them to do so
that went wrong.

What is even more alarming in recent times is that none of these
defects, in particular the country’s policing and prosecution
systems, have been taken seriously as important issues. Not even the
electorate, who has all the right to demand to ensure this, seriously
considers this as a priority. In Hong Kong, the election turnout for
Filipinos’ absentee voting was extremely low, blaming distrust
and possible cheating of the electoral process that discourages them
to cast votes. What is even more frightening are people are now
directly or indirectly giving up their right to vote, even in normal
situations. Once again, the electorates are forced by conditions in
the country to distrust and lose faith that change is possible in a
rotten system.

After May 14, the political leadership–from local, national and
sectoral–could change; but unless the core of why injustice,
corruption and poverty, among others, is effectively and properly
addressed by giving priority to improving the country’s
criminal justice system and to ensure its functioning, no substantial
progress will ever be achieved. The Asian Human Rights Commission
(AHRC) urges the Filipino and the international community concerned
about the worsening condition of human rights in the country to take
this opportunity to discuss and to reflect on this systemic defect to
give meaning to the electoral process and discourse. Unless the
electorate and the leadership deeply reflect on this systemic defect,
the cycle of escalating poll violence, assurance of complete impunity
and the like remains inevitable in a rotten system. These problems
for a long time have been a reflection of the collapse of the rule of
law in the country.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional
non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights
issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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