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All talk

First Posted 00:35:00 10/06/2007

Filed Under: Crime, Law & Justice

MANILA, Philippines -- If presidential orders still mean anything to the police and the military, hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings would have been solved a long time ago. But perhaps they see President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wink whenever she goes through her routine of condemning the killings and demanding that their perpetrators be brought to justice.

Fourteen months ago, on Aug. 1, 2006, the President told the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Department of Justice she was giving them 10 weeks to put behind bars the criminals responsible for the murder of at least 10 political activists or journalists. Whatever the motives for those killings may be, she said, ?it is the full intent of government to check all criminal acts and uphold the law.?

The next day, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita got into action -- not to ensure that the President?s order would be followed to the letter, but to explain why it could not be done. ?It?s hard to say what we can do in 10 weeks,? Ermita complained. All that the PNP?s Task Force Usig, the body formed to investigate the killings, could promise was its ?best effort,? he said.

Two months later, the task force reported that authorities had solved not only 10 but 21 cases and that appropriate charges had been filed in court. The report also said the PNP had arrested and taken 12 suspects into its custody. But if the figures didn?t seem to add up -- 12 suspects in 21 killings deemed solved? -- no one in government was about to challenge the report. As far as the police and the Arroyo administration were concerned, the quota had been met within the deadline set, and that settled the whole problem. Little has been heard from Task Force Usig since then.

If that was the best the government could do, it was not good enough to reduce the number of unsolved political murders. Since the President issued her order, 56 other victims have been added to the list, mostly activists identified with the Left, again. That brought the number of extrajudicial executions during the Arroyo administration to 300 by the Inquirer?s own count. (Karapatan, a human rights organization, puts the number at 886.)

Now, with Burma?s military junta?s brutal repression of protests hogging the news, the President has been trying to divert attention away from her administration?s dismal human rights record. Last week at the United Nations, she expressed ?revulsion? at Burma?s repression of peaceful protesters. ?We have no tolerance for human rights violations at home and abroad,? she declared.

She picked up the theme again Monday during the installation of Director General Avelino Razon as chief of the PNP, saying, ?No one should have to die for speaking out their political beliefs.? Ruing the country?s ?unfortunate history of political violence by those on the Left and the Right,? she promised ?to break the cycle once and for all.? She said she wanted Razon?s first report to be ?an update on arrests, convictions and imprisonment of those responsible for the killings of activists and journalists.? And then she asked Razon to ?let human rights be your legacy? when he retires in September next year.

What the President seemed to be saying was that Razon and the PNP should now give the highest priority to the solution of extrajudicial executions and the protection of human rights. There couldn?t be any other; the killings continue unabated and the rate of their solution has been frustrating. Razon was on top of the effort to investigate the killings, as chief of Task Force Usig. Now he is being given the additional responsibility of stopping them. If he couldn?t do the first job well, how can he be expected to do the two jobs better? Can anyone take the President?s marching orders seriously?

But this has been the story of how the government has handled human rights and extrajudicial executions: all bark, no bite; all talk, little action. In fact, some of the administration?s recent moves impede rather than speed up the solution of human rights cases. The military, for instance, has been defying court orders to produce reports pertaining to the kidnapping of Jonas Burgos. And the administration wants new legislation that would further tighten restrictions on the ?disclosure of military secrets.?

Given such mixed signals, every agency feels free to act on its own interpretation of the government?s policy -- even in a way that contradicts the President?s statements. And so the killings go on and the killers go free.

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