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Commentary: Tortured Justice

August 13, 2007

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

The hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001 have deservedly have been condemned by the international community and by the citizens of the country. Calls have been made for the government to take action to stop these killings and disappearances and for them to be properly investigated and successfully prosecuted. What is condemned less often is the state of the country's justice system that fails to provide the necessary institutional protection to prevent these human rights violations from occurring so frequently.

A case that illustrates the injustice far too regularly rendered by the legal system in the Philippines is that of the "Abadilla Five," five men who were arrested for fatally shooting Col. Rolando Abadilla of the former Philippine constabulary, and allegedly a feared hit man of the Marcos regime, on the streets of Quezon City in Metro Manila on June 13, 1996. The five men - Lenido Lumanog, Augusto Santos, Cesar Fortuna, Rameses de Jesus and Joel de Jesus-claim that after being suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted and brutally beaten they confessed to Abadilla's murder. Judge Jaime Salazar of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, however, ignored the arguments of the five men that they had been tortured into confessing to this crime, and they were subsequently convicted and sentenced to death in August 1999.

Several months later the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), an urban guerrilla group of the New People's Army (NPA), announced that they were responsible for killing Abadilla, and one of their members gave an Omega watch allegedly taken from Abadilla's body to a Catholic priest, Father Roberto Reyes, in January 2000 to prove they were responsible for his death. However, the court failed to reopen the case and entertain this new evidence as well as ballistics data that indicated that the bullets at the crime scene matched those used in other killings acknowledged by the ABB.

In February 2000, the Supreme Court began a mandatory review of the case as required in capital punishment cases. Nearly five years later in January 2005 the Supreme Court transferred the review to the Court of Appeal where it languishes today, more than 11 years after the arrest of the "Abadilla Five."

Meanwhile, an investigation conducted by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in June 1996 confirmed that the "Abadilla Five" had, indeed, been tortured and recommended that criminal charges be filed against the police officers responsible-Police Chief Superintendent Hercules Cataluna and Police Senior Superintendents Romulo Sales and Bartolome Baluyot and several others.

State prosecutor Marilyn Campomanes of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor (OCSP) was assigned the case; but after five years, her preliminary investigation had not yet been concluded. Finally, in August 2001, the OCSP dismissed the torture complaint on the rationale that the case was still being reviewed by the country's highest courts. Thus, it took five years for the OCSP to decide that a preliminary investigation could not be launched. Consequently, because the review is presently in the Court of Appeal, whose decision will be sent back to the Supreme Court, the "Abadilla Five's" torture complaint remains stranded in a legal black hole-probably for years-and the police officers accused of torturing the five men have never faced a criminal proceeding. In fact, one of the policemen, Baluyot, was accused several years later of torturing another suspect and was eventually able to retire from the police force to live presumably a peaceful life. Moreover, Cataluna and five other police officers have died in the intervening years.

The case of the "Abadilla Five" thus underlines a number of problems in the country's legal system: the use of torture to produce confessions to "solve" crimes rather than relying on ballistics and other professional forms of forensic investigation, the failure of the courts to deny the admission of such torture-induced confessions and, lastly, inordinate delays in the prosecution and judicial processes.

When people are convicted and even sentenced to death through evidence produced by an assault on their dignity as human beings and an abuse of their human rights-in this case the prohibition against torture-the legal system screams, like the torture victims, that there is no justice nor, moreover, does it care that injustice is the outcome. In a country with such a legal system, people see little reason to attempt to attain justice when their rights are violated or a crime is committed. Apathy toward seeking justice thus becomes a byproduct of such a system and ingrained among the populace-a reaction that is most likely welcomed by torturers and other criminals. Another byproduct is impunity for those who exhibit little respect for life.

The decisions of any legal system, of course, are not determined by the institution itself but are made by people. While reform of the legal system in the Philippines is clearly needed, reform will be of little benefit if the police, prosecutors and judges do not have a passion for justice, if rendering justice is of little concern to them. It is on this decision that they will be judged.

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong KongHe serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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