By Michael Lim Ubac, TJ BurgonioInquirer
Last updated 01:49am (Mla time) 06/22/2007
MANILA, Philippines -- The six experts sent by the European Union to investigate the unabated political killings in the country will ascertain whether the mass graves unearthed in Leyte and other provinces by the military held the remains of communist purge victims, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Thursday.
According to Ermita, the team that he dubbed “the first RP-EU needs-assessment mission” could help explain the proliferation of mass graves in the country because its members were experts in the fields of criminal investigation and prosecution.
He said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had personally invited the team to come over as part of the EU assistance to the Philippines to solve the political killings.
The experts arrived in Manila on Monday on a 10-day mission.
Ermita said ascertaining the authenticity of the mass graves was crucial to government efforts to unmask the masterminds of the “unexplained killings.”
The government has charged Rep. Satur Ocampo of the militant party-list group Bayan Muna and 51 others in connection with the decades-old purge of suspected military spies in the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), whose purported remains were found by the military in mass graves in the town of Inopacan in Leyte province.
But the Eastern Visayas chapter of the National Democratic Front, the political arm of the CPP, said the graves were “a hoax which the 8th [Infantry Division] had a hand in making up.”
Ocampo was arrested and detained on multiple murder charges in March; the Supreme Court allowed him to post bail in April. The main petition seeking to quash the case filed in the lower court is still pending.
The human rights group Karapatan Thursday suggested that the EU team also meet with the families of the victims of political killings.
Karapatan secretary general Marie Hilao-Enriquez told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the assistance of the EU experts was “much welcome.”
“But for it to be meaningful, they should look at the plight of the victims. They should hear them out,” she said.
Enriquez said that while the European Union was providing all sorts of technical assistance to the Philippine government, it should also look into the latter’s purported policy on the killing and “enforced disappearance” of leftist activists.
“The government does not lack technical expertise in investigation. For all we know, this is being messed up,” she said, adding:
“Instead of helping the government alone, the EU should also help the victims. We’ve not gotten a single cent from the government.”
Karapatan records show that as of May 31, there have been 863 “extrajudicial” killings since 2001, when Ms Arroyo came to power.
The list of those killed does not include Mario Auxillo, head of the Bohol chapter of Bayan Muna, who was slain in Tagbilaran City on June 17.
Of the victims, around half were farmers, Karapatan said. The regions where at least 100 had been killed were Bicol, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog.
Both the military and Malacañang have denied involvement, saying Oplan Laya I and II -- the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ counterinsurgency plans -- had not institutionalized a policy on the killing of leftist activists.
Stints in Kosovo, etc.
Malacañang hosted cocktails on Monday for the experts from the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. The reception included a briefing by Cecilia “Coco” Quisumbing of the Presidential Human Rights Committee.
Ermita said he had a chance to talk with three of them during the reception. “And I can see that they are experts, especially in forensics and crime scene investigation. They have experience in such places as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and even Kosovo,” he said.
Ermita said the invitations to the experts were coursed through their respective embassies.
“We would like them to see for themselves how and what kind of assistance they can give to our investigating agencies, to our prosecuting agencies and even to the courts because of their experience,” he said.
One issue is the military’s discovery of the mass graves, Ermita said.
“In our conversation, they said they might be able to help in determining, first, the kind of skeletal remains that have been discovered. [They will] try to see whether there is truth to the allegation that indeed these are subjects of foul play by any group -- whether the military, the police, or the NPA (New People’s Army, the armed wing of the CPP) itself,” he said.
Ermita said that apart from the technical assistance, the President welcomed such missions because they could lead to increased funding in prosecution and investigation.
“We hope to get some pledges from them. There are wherewithals that we lack. For example, it can’t be denied that funding is always a problem with us because we are a third-class economy, a Third World country,” Ermita said.
“We may not have enough for the prosecution of human rights violators. And, of course, they will help us strengthen our techniques of investigation,” he said.
Malacañang has repeatedly said that the government needed training and equipment for DNA testing, an integral part of criminal investigation.
On Wednesday, the EU experts met with officials of the Department of Justice to discuss the Witness Protection Program (WPP).
“They have been informed by the ambassadors here that one of the problems in our prosecution of suspects in the unexplained killings is the hesitation of witnesses to come out,” said Ermita.
“And, therefore, there is a need to enhance the WPP.”
On Thursday, they were scheduled to meet with members of the judiciary, “with the end in view of strengthening the prosecution of cases,” he said.
How to stop killings
Said Romeo Capulong, legal counsel of the families of victims from Bayan Muna and other progressive groups: “Any form of assistance that will improve the legal system is most welcome. But that will not address the immediate problem.”
Capulong said the assistance should include “how to stop the unabated executions and abductions.”
“What should be done now is to extend all forms of assistance to organizations in the Philippines and abroad who are documenting these human rights violations and gathering evidence. Because under the Arroyo administration, it’s a mere illusion that the perpetrators will be brought to justice,” Capulong said.
He said the EU team should establish a mechanism that would protect witnesses to the human rights violations from “reprisals.”
Human Security Act
The European Union has called on the Philippine government to introduce concrete measures to prevent human rights abuse, especially with the implementation next month of the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007, or the anti-terror law.
In a resolution adopted by the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 26, the European Union said the enactment of the HSA was “liable to further increase the incidence of human rights violations by the security forces because it will allow arrests without warrant and arbitrary detention for up to three days.”
The EU resolution highlighted both the findings of the Malacañang-created Melo Commission and the results of the investigation by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, which cited the possible involvement of the military in the political killings.