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Hong Kong Human Rights Group Faults Arroyo during Philippine Fact-Finding Mission

August 25, 2006

Hong Kong human rights enquiry finds bias in Philippine extra-judicial killing enquiry

"The example of The Philippines offers much to Hong Kong in terms of remaining free… and especially in terms of developing a willingness to give support to the marginalised," said Debby Chan Sze-wan, from the Hong Kong Christian Institute, at the opening of a press conference to release a report by an 11-member, Hong Kong-based, multi-sector, fact-finding commission, the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights, at the Foreign Correspondents Club on August 2. The commission's findings cast an ugly shadow of doubt over the August 1 declaration by Philippine president, Gloria Arroyo, to get tough on extra-judicial killings.

Commission member, Michael Anthony, of the Mong Kok-based Asian Legal Resource Centre (AHCR), questioned the ability of the government's newly-formed investigative task force to comprehensively probe the spate of seemingly politically-motivated murders taking place in The Philippines.

Noting that the Philippine government body, Task Force Usig (TFU), hurriedly put together on May 13 this year, only lists 127 cases of extra-judicial killings to be investigated, and claims action on just 47 of them, Anthony called it an entirely inadequate response to the 704 outside-the-law killings estimated by prominent members of the House of Representatives to have taken place since Arroyo came into office in January 2001 (up to July 8 this year).

He explained that this claim tallies with estimates made by a variety of human rights groups, and victims include members of legal opposition movements, Church personnel, union leaders, journalists and suspected New People's Army sympathisers.

Ho Wai-yang, of the Hong Kong Bar Association, added that ten human rights lawyers and 15 judges, who had passed down anti-government decisions, are among the slaughtered, casting deep suspicion on the independence of the legal process.

Ho noted on a more disturbing note, that the chief of Arroyo's newly-appointed investigative team, the deputy director-general of police, Avelino Razon, revealed during an interview with the fact-finding commission that he regards these killings as passé. "He seemed to think this is normal," she commented with incredulity.

Commission convener, Bruce Van Voorhis, the communications officer for AHRC, expressed concern at Arroyo's August 1 "ten weeks to solve ten murder cases" directive to the Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police. "What about the rest of them?" he questioned, noting the Philippine government could not be exonerated from suspicion of involvement in the murders until every one of the 704 cases has been fully investigated and suspects tried before a court of law. He noted that this failure destroys The Philippines' integrity as a foundation member of the United Nations' international Human Rights Commission. To date, only one person has been convicted.

He explained that without dedication to investigate every case fully, the in-house task force has the freedom to close off any case at any time, leaving the door wide open to corruption and protection of friends.

The legal representative on the commission, Ho, said that the matter is further complicated by what she termed a culture of "success upon suspicion" among the Philippine police. "They seem to think their job is finished at the point of filing charges," she noted "which contradicts the legal presumption of innocent until proven guilty."

Ho expanded on other contradictions in Philippine legal and investigative practices. "Government authorities ignore directives and rulings of the Supreme Court with impunity," she explained. She also said that because the number one suspect in many extra-judicial killings, the Philippine military, is part of the investigating arm of the government, it becomes privy to all information collected during enquiries.

Anthony noted that TFU chief, Razon, told the commission that "we cannot investigate a crime without a body." The human rights investigator explained this leaves the way open for would-be assassins to simply "make people disappear," giving extra business to the country's thriving salvaging industry (where the body is never found), widely believed to be primarily police and military financed.

Anthony pointed to the in-house nature of the TFU. "It means it lacks independence," he explained, adding, that in his experience, self investigative bodies seldom come up with a guilty verdict. "It shows no signs of being capable of effectively addressing extra-judicial killings," he went on, commenting that the process smacks of a political agenda.

He also pointed to the illogicality of the government's position. "In the case that illegal opposition armed groups or individuals, not connected with the state, are perpetrating the killings, as is claimed by the government and the TFU, it is in their (the government's) interest to shed light on this," he stressed.

He also questioned the TFU claim that it "lacks witnesses," commenting that this points to a fear among the populace to go under a government witness protection programme.

However, Van Voorhis reserved his biggest salvo for the TFU's Razon, explaining that during their two-hour interview, the investigative chief claimed that "no government personnel were involved," indicating that he had already destroyed the impartiality of enquiries by pre-judging the issue.

Van Voorhis said that the multi-sector commission sought support from sectors of the Philippine migrant community in Hong Kong "who correspond to the sectors being murdered in The Philippines," and that contrary to most fact-finding commissions, which are mono background in make up, it also includes representatives from journalism, Church, student associations and migrant community groups. The commission's findings will be handed to the Philippine and Hong governments as well as the United Nations.

by Jim Mulroney  Sunday Examiner – Hong Kong



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