“Human Rights and Extrajudicial Killings”


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On the SO ano NA? Forum

UP Bahay ng Alumni, Diliman

16 July 2017

Good morning.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be a part of this event.  Much as I would have preferred to be with you in person, I have to content myself with being with you in spirit and in conscience.

Let my very absence be proof of my undying commitment to the cause of human rights.

First of all, I would like to thank Senator Antonio “Sonny” F. Trillanes IV for delivering my message today. 

I have been requested to speak about the state of human rights in our country today. 

I could do that by citing the numbers of those killed in the so-called “war on drugs”.  Some accounts place the death toll anywhere from 7,000 to as high as 10,000 and counting, ever since the current Administration took office on June 30, 2016. 

But I choose not to do that for three reasons: first, the numbers, these days, have become highly unreliable because the killers have become experts in devising ways to hide their crimes and, hence, the real number of their victims. 

Second, while ascertaining the number and identity of the victims is essential in order to deliver justice for them and their families, it ought not to suggest that our indignation should stem merely from the shocking level of the statistics.  Back in the beginning, when the numbers were still on the rise, I was advised to hold back – for my own safety.  I refused – dahil matatag ang paniniwala ko na ang pagpatay sa isang tao, gamit ang kapangyarihan ng Estado, ay sapat nang dahilan upang tayo ay magpahayag ng mariing pagtutol at sumingil sa pananagutan ng sinumang may sala.

And, third, recounting the death toll seems awfully inadequate to paint the full picture of the human rights situation we have today in our nation. 

I could begin by repeating the accounts of the modus operandi being used to create a culture and cycle of violence, corruption, fear and impunity:

  • From insider accounts, we have heard that:
    • the police have received cash payments for executing drug suspects, planting evidence at crime scenes and carrying out most of the killings that have been blamed on vigilantes. 
    • the killings are so coordinated and premeditated that security cameras in the neighbourhood are unplugged beforehand where a killing is planned. 
    • their preparations have so evolved that perpetrators have been taught by crime scene investigators to place guns at a slight distance from the suspects, rather than in their hands, to make things “more realistic”.
    • Corruption within the ranks of our police force is spreading, especially given the monetary incentive to kill, ranging from 20,000 pesos to five million pesos; as well as the threat of harm against those who refuse to kill.[1]  
  • Let us not forget that, per Davao Death Squad (DDS) insiders Arturo Lascañas and Edgar Matobato, this President was behind the DDS killings, the precursor of the nationwide nightmare (now, the Duterte Death Squad);
  • From the accounts of hired killers, we have heard that:
    • There are hired hitmen and women who answer to police officers, who hire them to kill for compensation of up to P20,000.
    • Hit squads have never been as busy as they are now.
    • One women got started in the “business” when her husband was commissioned to kill a debtor by a policeman, who was also a drug pusher.
    • Women are being hired because they can get near targets without suspicion.
    • Another member of the death squad works with corrupt police officers, sometimes taking portions of the drug hauls they confiscated in raids to sell.
    • Those who get into the business find it difficult to leave due to economic constraints and threats to kill them should they choose to leave. [2]
  • From the accounts of medical professionals, we know that:
    • They are using hospitals to hide the real number of casualties of the war on drugs.
    • Police investigation protocols are being abused and bastardized to hide outright murders.
    • Doctors aren’t asking any questions out of fear, but they cannot hide that victims are being killed at close range, with precise and unsurvivable wounds that undermined police claims that suspects were injured during chaotic exchanges of gunfire.[3]

Kahit ulit-ulitin ko pa ang mga karumaldumal at garapal na pagyurak sa dignidad at pagkatao ng ating mga kapatid na Pilipino, hindi pa rin sapat ito upang mailarawan ang tunay na estado ng Karapatang Pantao sa ating bansa.

Even if I were to make Senator Trillanes stand here and recount the President’s and his men’s blatant disregard for human dignity; for the perversion of our political history by giving a hero’s burial to a corrupt and murderous dictator; for the sickening misogyny, slut-shaming and other forms of abuse he has piled upon women, even encouraging soldiers to commit rape under the state of martial law he had declared; for the insistence on reimposing the death penalty; for his propensity to disrespect the institutions that are key to our democratic way of living, including silencing his critics and co-opting the institutions that ought to be the check against his tendencies towards abuse of power – that would not be enough to tell us the state of human rights in our country today.

Naniniwala po ako na ang tunay na estado ng pagtatanggol at pagsusulong sa karapatang pantao sa ating bansa ay nasasalamin – hindi lamang sa pamamagitan ng imahe ng dugong dumadanak sa ating mga kalsada; o sa pamamagitan ng larawan ng patong-patong na mga bangkay na dinadala sa mga morge at ospital; o sa pighating mababanaag mula sa mukha ng mga batang naulila – kundi pati na rin, at marahil mas higit pa, sa tila kawalan o kakulangan ng malawakang pagkondena sa mga nagaganap na pagyurak sa dignidad ng ating mga kapwa tao. 

The human rights crisis we are facing goes so much deeper than a President who unabashedly presents himself as a ruthless, self-professed killer, or his minions in the bureaucracy who allow him to get away with his utter disdain and disrespect for others’s human dignity.

Our bigger problem, I believe, is in facing the uncomfortable truth of his continued popularity, and the seemingly popular support for his so-called “war on drugs”. 

Where have we gone wrong as a society that the death of the poor are apparently considered, quote-unquote, “mere collateral damage”?  That their death – nay, murder! at the hands of officials who swore an oath to serve and protect them– is an acceptable sacrifice at the altar of a false idol?

In order to do that, I would like to beg your indulgence by discussing a seemingly unrelated “phenomenon”.

On the fourth day of 2017, an 8-year-old girl was found dead inside a car in Baseco Compound, Tondo, Manila.  She was accidentally left behind by her family inside the borrowed car after they visited the mall the day before.   Her uncle was the driver, and the Manila Police District (MPD) homicide section was reported to be filing charges against him for negligence and reckless imprudence resulting in homicide. 

This tragic “phenomenon” – for a lack of a better word – is the subject matter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article from the Washington Post that asked the question: is it a crime?

And it is a legitimate question because people’s reaction, including that of people in authority, seem to differ.  Some, especially relatives and friends who knew the family, tend to be forgiving, but others – including comments online and on social media from anonymous netizens – tend towards quick anger, and even hate-filled vitriol. 

Official reaction from law enforcement agents also differ.  In one case, the initial charge was second degree murder (which is more or less the common law equivalent of “homicide” in our jurisdiction); in another, it was involuntary manslaughter (which is approximately the equivalent of the reckless imprudence resulting in homicide); in yet another, the person was not charged at all. 

The mother who was initially charged with second degree murder was ultimately acquitted after two tapes were played – one of the mother’s interrogation by the police in the hospital about an hour after her son’s death, which put on display her grief, horror and remorse for what “she had done”; and the other, the 911 call made by a passer-by, in the background of which the mother’s initial anguish and efforts to administer CPR to her son could be discerned.

The father who was charged with manslaughter was also acquitted.  During his trial, an emergency room nurse testified and wept as she described how the father was virtually catatonic when the police first brought him in, and how he refused to be sedated because he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.  Tellingly, the initial decision to charge him was made by a public prosecutor, who also happened to be a father and who could not imagine this ever happening to himself because he considers himself “a watchful father”.

On the other hand, in the case of the father who was not charged at all, the decision not to file charges was made by a public prosecutor, who also happened to be a father of six children, one of whom died of leukemia before she reached 3 years of age.  He insists that he made the decision not to file charges based on the law, but he also knew what losing a child does to a parent.

The lesson, in my mind, is clear: where people can relate – or can find a common ground, and see their humanity reflected in another person’s face and mirrored in another person’s plight – they can be understanding.  They can be open to respecting the dignity and suffering of another.  They can be humane.

This piece helped me come to terms with what has been bothering me the most. 

I will be very candid and say that it does bother me, infinitely so, that there seems to be a quiet sentiment that bad things are happening because the victims deserve it. 

That human rights abuses will never happen to, quote-unquote, “good people”. 

That taking the time to accord human rights to drug suspects is not just a waste of time and money, but is, somehow, part of the problem in our society; that it is a sign of weakness.

It does bother me that the President, despite everything he has said and done, continues to enjoy a high satisfaction rating from our people – at least according to some sources. 

More precisely, it bothers me that there does not seem to be enough clamor against the killings that have been committed thus far – both from ordinary Filipinos, and also from key institutions. 

How could it be that, nearly seven decades after our nation ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and three decades after the overthrow of a dictatorship from our own backyard, we could still find ourselves in a situation where thousands of killings can be perpetrated within a span of 365 days, yet the domestic reaction is more of a worried whimper, compared to the indignant outcry from international observers.  Ang namamatay ay ang ating mga kababayan, bakit parang hindi tayo nababahala?

It bothers me that the absence of unanimous and resounding indignation is allowing even more killings to be committed with impunity; perhaps 5 more years of the same. 

Bakit tila masyadong tahimik ang ating mga kababayan?  Nababahala po ako dahil alam ko, sa ikabuturan ng aking pagkatao, na hindi mangyayari ang ganito karami at ganito kagarapal na patayan sa ating bayan, sa loob ng isang buong taon, kung hindi natin ito pinapabayaang mangyari. 

This, I believe, is the true human rights crisis we are facing today.  Our faith in its importance has been shaken.  And it will take greater thought and effort from all of us before we can get back on the right track again.

The problem with human rights is this: we are dealing with human beings.  Human beings who have as much an ability for empathy as well as for alienation.  While they possess the capacity to see humanity in others, they also possess the ability draw distinctions between themselves and the so-called “others”, including those in whose experience and wisdom we ought to have learned. 

Kaya merong mga taong nakapagmamalaki at nagsasabing wala nang lugar ang Karapatang Pantao sa kasalukuyan nating kalagayan – dahil iba na ang panahong ito.  We are at war.  There is no room for human rights, i.e., a badge of weakness, when one goes to war.  This thinking conveniently and recklessly ignores the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which we, as a nation, were one of the first signatories, was drafted precisely in light of the harsh lessons we learned after two World Wars.

As one philosopher (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) who wrote about morality and freedom once said, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”  Humans have to experience for themselves, as far as possible, for them to relate to others.  But when we wait for this to happen – for people to suffer the consequences of their actions – it would be too late, as it is already too late, for those whose lives will be lost while we re-learn these painful lessons.

That is our challenge: how to get the rest of the nation to relate to the negative impact of human rights abuses to themselves – even if they themselves have not experienced the loss and sufferings of the victims and their families.

We must pull back the mask of anonymity that comes with being one of a faceless mass, and let the nation see the humanity that lies beneath.  Let them hear the faces and hear the voices of the very few victims who survived, and the families left behind.  Let the stories be heard in their own words, and those of the witnesses, the professionals who saw the aftermath, and the insiders who know how the other side operates. 

It is the failing of our society that we do not know the victims by name:

  • That we do not know who Michelle Mergillano is.  How she was shot four times– all in the head – by four armed men in front of her children.  How her eight-year-old daughter begged for her mother’s life to be spared.  How one of the intruders took from her arms the baby she was holding, and thereafter dropped the baby on the floor before proceeding to kill her.  How her children had to clean up the gruesome aftermath of the murder, and found two of her teeth on the floor.[4]
  • That we do not know who James Matela is, a 16-year-old boy who was taken from his home in Barangay Payatas, Quezon City, and repeatedly shot – more than 10 shots according to witnesses’ accounts – by seven masked men in front of his family.  How his mother, Luzviminda, in her attempt to protect her son from the assault, was also shot at; and other members of the family beaten up.  How his family are too afraid to have his death investigated because there are too many children in the house who may be targeted.[5]
  • That we do not know more about a 12-year-old girl given the alias “Linda,” who saw how her parents shot in front of her and her siblings in Caloocan City, according to the account of Fr. Gilbert Billena, who has the unenviable task of blessing the corpses that stand as the macabre “accomplishments” of the President’s “War on Drugs”.  How, in the eyes of Fr. Billena, change has, indeed, come for the poor – who are now even more deeply in debt in order to pay for funeral services to bury their mothers, fathers and children killed by the police.  How he echoes what we ourselves keep saying, “We are against drugs but we have to fight for human rights.”[6]

All these accounts have to be seen by the nation as eroding the very foundations of our democratic way of life: that there are people who have died who may not have deserved to die at all.  And they are more than just collateral damage.  They are more than what is written on the cardboard labels placed on their corpses.  They are the victims, and their lives matter.

Whereas the Duterte administration and the police have a virtually unlimited and all-powerful propaganda machinery at their disposal – including an online troll army, and the resources of the whole government to demonize the victims and those who defend them, where is the avenue for the other side to be heard?

Certainly not before the courts.  What few cases that are impartially investigated – such as the case of Mayor Espinosa, where Senators themselves found evidence that the killing was premeditated – are being undermined, not just by downgrading of charges at the DOJ level, but also with the callous and shameless reinstatement of the perpetrators as so-called “law enforcers” and promises of pardon from the Chief Executive himself.

It’s a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.  One that we need to break by harnessing the power of the sovereign Filipino people in order to demand the accountability of our so-called leaders, under the Constitution that they swore to uphold and defend.

Any one of us could be the victims of this corrupt system. 

And it is, indeed, a very, very, very corrupt system.  The very title of the operation: Oplan Double Barrel hints at the injustice and corruption: the poor are slaughtered, while the big-time drug lords are arrested and given the chance to have their day in court.  How corrupt elements in the police force and the bureaucracy are using this so-called anti-drug campaign to solidify their hold on drug trade – proof of which is that prices of drugs in Manila have gone down, meaning that the supply has not been adversely affected – and to eliminate competition and those who would defy and turn against them.

My second takeaway from the Washington Post article is more subtle.  When put under stress, the rational thinking part of our brains can be overridden by the more primitive part – the part that is “inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical….”  In other words, more stressors there are, the less capable we are of thinking deliberately and critically.

To still be able to think clearly, deliberatively and critically – in the midst of the drudgery we experience everyday – is a privilege.  And it is a privilege we have to check because not everyone is so fortunate. We here today are the lucky ones. 

Much as we want to believe that it should be relatively easy for people to discern the benefits of a society that observes, protects and upholds human rights, such mental faculties could be overridden, thanks to the propaganda machinery that keeps telling people a false narrative that demonizes the victims, and churns out dubious data about the drug problem and its relation to criminality:

  • That there are 3 million drug addicts among us, all of whom are criminally inclined, and
  • That all criminality traces its roots from drug use.

Crime is more complicated than that.  We just need to look at the crime statistics in Davao City – which is reported to still rank as “first among 15 cities in the Philippines for murder and second for rape”[7] – and police statistics that show that crime rate has been dropping for some time now, particularly from the period 2013 to 2016.[8] 

A senior Philippine law enforcement officer is even reported to have admitted that “Duterte’s ‘arbitrary’ figures had put pressure on police and government officials” because they “need to produce” and, no matter how hard they try, they cannot come close to the figures given by the President.[9]  

In other words, our people have been turned into a blood thirsty mob through the use of false information and false narratives.

That is betrayal of public trust of the highest order.

And yet, there are officials who see nothing wrong with that.  One was even quoted as saying that such misinformation hurts no one.[10] Not hurting anyone, indeed, except those who are being killed based on possibly false information, false data, and false narrative. 

He even went so far as to say “People don’t care how it’s done as long as it’s done.”[11] 

If that were true, then that is the true human rights crisis that we are facing.  We cannot become a people who do not mind killings, especially when the killings are based on lies.

That is the challenge we face.  To face it, we have to accept that we have to do more and, perhaps, to do things differently.  We have to get past people’s fatigue and tendency towards apathy.  That is my motivation for submitting legislative measures that seek to enhance people’s understanding and appreciation of human rights and of discerning truth from the lies – such as the Human Rights Education bill – and why I delivered a privilege speech and drafted a resolution against fake news.

Human rights is under attack, and not just by killings in the streets.  The battle is also being waged in people’s minds.  And that’s where the war will be won or lost.  For no human rights abuses can be perpetrated with impunity if people are active and vocal in claiming such rights for themselves, even against the most repressive of regimes.  As the saying goes, water cannot rise higher than its source.  As powerful as President Duterte seems to think he is, his power emanates from the people.  We just need to claim it.

Sa puntong ito, nais naming ibahagi sa inyo ang isang video presentation upang mag-iwan ng hamon at panawagan. Sa kabila ng mga patayan, bakit nilulunod tayo ng katahimikan? Sa pagdurusa ng pamilya ng mga biktima, magbubulag-bulagan nalang ba tayo sa pang-aabuso at kawalang hustisya?

[1] Reuters, 18 April 2017, Special Report: Police describe kill rewards, staged crime scenes in Duterte’s drug war, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-duterte-police-specialrep-idUSKBN17K1F4

[2] BBC, 26 August 2016, Philippines drugs war: The woman who kills dealers for a living, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37172002

[3] Reuters, 29 June 2017, Dead on Arrival: Philippine police use hospitals to hide drug war killings, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/philippines-duterta-doa/

[4] Inquirer, 01 March 2017, Gunmen took baby in mom’s arms before killing her in front of kids, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/876388/gunmen-took-baby-in-moms-arms-before-killing-her-in-front-of-kids

[5] PhilStar, 13 June 2017, Teen dragged out of home, shot dead, http://www.philstar.com/metro/2017/06/13/1709445/teen-dragged-out-home-shot-dead?nomobile=1

[6] Inquirer, 14 June 2017, ‘I’ve been blessing drug war dead almost every week’, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/905268/ive-been-blessing-drug-war-dead-almost-every-week

[7] Reuters, 18 October 2016, As death toll rises, Duterte deploys dubious data in ‘war on drugs’, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/philippines-duterte-data/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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