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Belated outrage

/ 05:07 AM February 04, 2021

Last month, Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, expressed outrage that at least 20 people, by his count, had been killed by motorcycle-riding assassins in January 2021 alone.

“One killing is one too many. Alas, there are too many. They have no qualms shooting people in front of their family. They are not even afraid to shoot them in front of their children,” said Gordon in his Jan. 18 privilege speech that led to the probe that kicked off on Jan. 28. These criminals who kill with impunity are “engendering hopelessness and fear in the people,” Gordon added.

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Among the recently murdered was Fr. Rene Rega-

lado of Malaybalay, Bukidnon, who championed farmers’ rights and campaigned against illegal logging. He was found dead late Jan. 24, shot multiple times in the head not far from the seminary where he was staying.

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Also mercilessly felled were 59-year-old barangay tanod Joseph Labonera Sr., who was gunned down at close range on Jan. 4 while he was manning a quarantine control checkpoint in Floridablanca, Pampanga; and Winston Intong, 53, who was shot while buying vegetables in a mini-market near his home in Malaybalay City. Intong’s death made him the 56th lawyer to be killed under the Duterte administration.

The deaths as of December last year include lawyer Jovencio Senados, who was killed on his way to work as Manila City Prosecutor’s Office’s inquest division chief; peasant leader and activist Randall Echanis, who was tortured before being killed; and human rights defender Zara Alvarez.

All of them died from assassins’ bullets. “This manner of killings really reeks of impunity. The killers are getting more bold,” lamented Gordon at the hearing. And with far too few of these cases being solved, he added, the spate of killings will not stop if the government “will not act on it.”

Who will argue with that sentiment? Local and international rights groups have been raising the same hue and cry all this time, protesting the seeming inutility, or unwillingness, of the administration to seriously address the environment of violence that bloody police operations and unabated vigilante killings have inflicted on the land. In January 2017, Amnesty International released a report that said the killings arising from the government’s campaign against illegal drugs appeared to be “systematic, planned and organized” by police authorities, and could reach the standard of crimes against humanity. It was a damning, disturbing conclusion, but who was it who quickly dismissed the report as mere hearsay?

Gordon, that’s who. “To conduct a hearing based on hearsay is to expend precious government resources based on mere ‘tsismis,’” he huffed then.

Before that, Gordon had already pronounced his verdict: There were no state-sponsored killings happening in the country. In October 2016, after just six hearings, he terminated the probe on the extrajudicial killings being linked to the government’s “Oplan Tokhang” and concluded that neither President Duterte nor the state ordered the killings as a matter of policy. The hearings featured Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed member and hitman of the feared Davao Death Squad who testified that Mr. Duterte himself had ordered killings when he was still the mayor of Davao City.

By this time, over 100 days into the administration of the new President, the deaths had soared into the thousands. Citing figures provided by then police chief Ronald dela Rosa—now Gordon’s colleague in the Senate—an Amnesty statement noted that “As of 20 September [2016], over 1,500 people had been killed in police operations against illegal drugs, while there were over 2,000 murders by unknown assailants that are under investigation. The total number of killings is now suspected to be well over 3,500—at least 33 a day since Rodrigo Duterte came to power.” This is “state-sanctioned violence on a truly shocking scale,” declared Amnesty.

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Since then, the UN Human Rights Office has likewise denounced how, as it stated in a report in June last year, “A heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has resulted in serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.” Per the UN office’s count, at least 8,663 people had been killed, with some estimates putting the real toll at more than triple that number. And, between 2015 and 2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists would be killed in relation to their work.

Gordon now condemns the “brazen killings” and the “peril they bring to the country’s peace and order.” The awakening is welcome, of course—but would that the outrage had come when it could’ve mattered, when it wasn’t yet too little and too late.

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TAGS: Killings, motorcycle-riding assassins, Senator Richard Gordon, state-sponsored killings
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