The Aquino administration came under fire Thursday for blaming the judiciary for the slow progress in the investigation of human rights abuses.
Responding to the contention of presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda that courts were to blame, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that only a small number of cases had been filed in courts.
The New York-based watchdog outlined several reasons: investigations were stalled; witnesses were afraid to come out or were the target of violence; law enforcers were either too inept or compromised to conduct thorough investigations; suspects were not arrested; and obstruction by the military whose personnel have been implicated in the abuses.
“We remind Lacierda that all these fall within the responsibility of the executive branch. And for him to say that he did not agree with HRW because index crimes are going down in the first quarter of the year is ludicrous,” Carlos Conde, HRW’s Asia division researcher, said in a statement. “Edwin Lacierda is uninformed at best, dishonest at worst.”
On Wednesday, Lacierda brushed aside HRW’s castigation of Mr. Aquino for failing to stop the killings of environmental activists, blaming the judiciary for the government’s failure to prosecute rights violators. He said the judiciary was separate from the executive branch.
On Thursday, Lacierda told reporters that the HRW should share with the government whatever evidence it had so that those responsible could be prosecuted.
He also said the military was doing its best to go after officials implicated in rights abuses.
“These people are being hunted down. And we will not stop until these people are found,” he said.
The HRW has documented the murderers of three critics of mining and energy projects allegedly by paramilitary forces since October 2011.
Several investigations by the HRW, the United Nations and the government’s own commissions have affirmed this, Conde said, adding that the United States has been withholding foreign military financing from the Philippines precisely because of abuses by military and paramilitary personnel.
“Instead of mouthing baseless retorts to discredit reports of military involvement in these abuses, the Aquino (administration) should start punishing officers and men in the Army who violate human rights,” he said.
‘Lamest of excuses’
The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), counsel for the families of missing activists Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, said the presidential spokesperson is “glued to ivory towers and should come down from the hill and see the reality from the ground.”
“It smacks of ignorance, if not duplicity, to conveniently invoke separation of powers this time and pass the buck solely to the courts for the government’s failure to punish perpetrators,” NUPL secretary general Edre Olalia said in a statement.
“It is simply the lamest of excuses, as it disregards the efforts of victims and their families to file cases against rights violators, no thanks to Aquino. It simply manifests this administration’s low regard for the pursuit of justice for the victims and, in putting an end to killings and impunity. With this frame of mind, it is no wonder why Major General Jovito Palparan Jr. remains free from arrest up to this time,” said Karapatan spokesperson Cristina Palabay.
Palparan has evaded arrest for the disappearance and illegal detention of Cadapan and Empeño.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes reminded the government that it was the victims who filed rights abuses cases, not the government.
“Fact is, the government has not shown much interest in human rights as seen from Aquino’s previous Sona speeches where the issue hardly merits any mention. When they do mention it now, palusot pa (they have to make excuses),” Reyes said.
NPA atrocities ignored
For its part, the Philippine Army on Thursday asked its critics why they were not talking about atrocities of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), its executions of militiamen and the use of land mines and child soldiers.
“Records will show that the number of reported human rights violations have dwindled over the years. We have also acted on the complaints about human rights abuses and sacked soldiers who committed abuses like the ones responsible for the alleged torture in Basilan,” said Major Harold Cabunoc, the Army spokesperson.
Cabunoc said the NPA had issued “press statements declaring our soldiers as criminals, and imposing the death penalty through executions.”
He cited the case of Gino Olugar, a militiaman who was executed by NPA rebels in Camarines Sur province, joining “the long list of militiamen” who had been killed by the group.
“Shall we forget the murder of Swiss and longtime North Cotabato resident Patrick Winneger? He was executed by the NPA on suspicion that he was a military supporter. We don’t need to resort to blind finger-pointing because the NPA owned up to the crime,” he said.
For its part, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said the HRW should support its claims with evidence.
In a briefing, the AFP public affairs chief, Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., said the military has always been open to an investigation of its personnel over alleged human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.
“It has never been the policy of the AFP to use force beyond legal means,” Burgos said. With a report from Norman Bordadora