More than healing, a shrine for justice | Inquirer Opinion

More than healing, a shrine for justice

/ 05:03 AM December 16, 2023

The Diocese of Caloocan, once described by its bishop Pablo Virgilio David as a “killing field’’ during former president Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous drug war, has broken ground for the construction of a shrine for victims of extrajudicial killings (EJK) that has symbolized the human rights abuses under the previous administration.

Official police records state that more than 6,000 people were killed during “Oplan Tokhang,” but human rights groups estimate the death toll to be as high as 30,000, an appalling record that has prompted the International Criminal Court (ICC) to initiate investigations on Duterte and his key officials for crimes against humanity.

Most of the victims are poor, killed while supposedly resisting arrest and fighting off cops in dubious operations where drugs and guns were widely believed to have been planted by police. Most of those killed in Metro Manila came from the Caloocan diocese, comprising the cities of Caloocan, Malabon, and Navotas, where David noted that 80 percent of the killings were done by masked men, who turned out to be cops.


Shrine of HealingOut of thousands of cases involving police, only two court convictions were handed down by the Caloocan courts: one for the 2017 killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, and the second for the killing of youngsters Reynaldo de Guzman and Carl Angelo Arnaiz.


It is only fitting that the “Dambana ng Paghilom” or Shrine of Healing would rise where Delos Santos and other EJK victims were laid to rest—at the La Loma Cemetery on land donated by the Caloocan diocese.

David, along with Fr. Flavie Villanueva, who founded “Program PagHILOM” which provides legal and psychosocial support to some 329 victims’ families, led the groundbreaking rites also attended by former vice president Leni Robredo, former senator Leila de Lima, and notably by diplomats from The Netherlands and Germany, and a representative from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). The victims’ mothers, widows, and daughters present at the rites wrote letters to their loved ones which were placed in an urn and buried at the site.

In its 2020 report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, the OHCHR noted the “heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs [that] has resulted in serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.’’ It also reported that “’incendiary’ language’’ and “harmful rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of [g]overnment” exacerbated the rights violations, a reference to Duterte’s frequent statements directing cops to kill suspects even without due process.

A haunting reminder

It is a culture of impunity that is apparently so deeply ingrained in the police organization that killings continue under the new administration, albeit to a lesser degree.

While President Marcos has explicitly rejected the Duterte drug war in favor of a rehabilitative approach, the Dahas Project of the University of the Philippines said at least 342 drug-related killings were committed between July 1, 2022, and June 30 this year, with 115 killings done during the Philippine National Police’s anti-illegal drug operations.

More than offering solace and a physical space to remember and mourn their lost sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, and kin, the EJK shrine will also be a haunting reminder of the nearly six years of mayhem that shocked, but also seemingly desensitized, people to the brazen killings done by those tasked to enforce the laws.


Glimmer of hope

But while a shrine can be put up as a painful reminder, and hopefully a deterrent to future murderous regimes, the only way to heal the families and the nation of this lingering malaise is to see justice served on perpetrators—be they lowly cops or former high-ranking officials.

With the painfully slow pace of the country’s justice system, families and supporters of EJK victims have looked up to the ICC, the Hague-based tribunal, to help in their quest for accountability in the death of their loved ones.

A glimmer of hope has been seen in that direction lately, with a resolution at the House calling on the Marcos administration to cooperate with the ICC investigation. Formerly opposed to the probe on Duterte, the father of his Vice President Sara Duterte, Mr. Marcos has now seemingly encouraged that move. It remains to be seen however if this is a sincere conviction to pursue justice or just a political game between the President and his current allies.

In her remarks at the groundbreaking rites, Robredo urged the victims’ families to “never run out of hope,’’ saying that “justice may be slow, but the world is round and someday, we will achieve justice for them.”

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Will they see that day under this administration? This is what the victims’ families may be praying for in the Shrine of Healing.

TAGS: Caloocan, drug war, EJK, human rights, shrine

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