Impunity and Murder in the Philippines

After years of international attention and outrage, the Philippines has only convicted fewer than 1 percent of the murderers responsible for a spate of killings of leftists, journalists and others during the reign of departed president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, according to a new study by Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based risk assessment company.

The PSA report, issued Monday, also questions whether the new administration of Benigno Aquino III has the intention to attempt to clean up the mess. "To date, President Aquino has made no categorical statement or substantive effort to shift away from Oplan Bantay Laya (Safeguarding Freedom) that rests at the core of extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses in the country," the report said. "His ambiguity or outright avoidance of the issue may simply be a sign that addressing the country's extra-judicial killings problem is low on his priority list."

However, the report continues, "it could be that Aquino, like his predecessor, prefers a hard-line solution against perceived government dissenters which would favor security offensives to community development and socio-economic reform.

Trials in the Philippines can take years. The ones involving the handful of accused assailants who have been reported are expected to run to five years apiece. The current trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr., a Mindanao mayor and son of warlord Andal Ampatuan has droned on for months despite the fact that Ampatuan is accused of ordering the mass murder of 57 people in his home province of Maguindanao in November of 2009. Of the 57 dead, 34 were journalists or media workers. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called it the worst attack on journalists in history. Ampatuan in the meantime is being held in an air-conditioned cell with all the comforts of home. Many question whether he will be convicted, as witnesses have been murdered or intimidated out of testifying.

PSA based its report on one sponsored by the Asia Foundation and the US Agency for International Development and written by Al Parreño, a Filipino lawyer.

From the time Arroyo was sworn in as president of the Philippines on Jan. 20, 2001, replacing the ousted Joseph Estrada, 390 people were murdered. Some 32 percent were activists, 15 percent journalists, eight percent were rebels and the others were farmers, lawyers, public officers, officers of religious organizations and judges, according to the report. Most occurred between 2005 and 2006.

It is widely believed that former President Gloria Arroyo conceptualized and implemented Bantay-Laya to suppress and harass her opponents," the report continued.

"Of the total only 161 cases, or 56 percent, were ever filed with the courts because the assailant could not be identified," the report continues. "Even when suspects are identified and brought to court, the average length of the court case is approximately five years."

There were rarely witnesses to the murders, and if there were, they have eventually recanted their stories or failed to turn up in court "due to harassment, threat of reprisal and intimidation."

At least 19 percent of the murders are believed to have been perpetrated by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, another 9 percent by police officers. "Unidentified armed men" committed most of the rest. Armed rebels such as the New People's Army and others, however, were responsible for 12 percent of the deaths.

Three provinces have borne the brunt of the killings. Pampanga, north of Manila and Arroyo's home province, recorded 37 cases and 41 killings. The others were Negros Occidental, with 29 deaths, and Northern Samar in the Visayas with 33. At least 30 other provinces recorded at least a killing apiece, however.

The report draws a parallel to the years when former strongman Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country, the last 10 under martial law, when more than 3,000 people were murdered. "While this total is not as high, the circumstances surrounding the killings are strikingly parallel.

"Both in the Marcos era and today, the majority of the victims were poor to lower middle-class leftist activists or leaders." Many were members of such activist groups as Bayan Muna and Anakpawis.

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