PHILIPPINES: Retract statement justifying killing & order impartial investigation

January 23, 2007

An Open Letter to the chief of the Philippine National Police by the Asian Human Rights Commission

General Oscar Calderon
Philippine National Police (PNP)
Camp General Rafael Crame
Quezon City

Tel: +63 2 726 4361/4366/8763
Fax: +63 2724 8763

Dear General Calderon

PHILIPPINES: Retract statement justifying killing & order impartial investigation

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) writes to express our outrage at a recent statement by a senior police officer issued through the Philippine Information Agency asserting that the killing and wounding respectively of two men was due to a “legitimate police operation”, and to call for a retraction of the statements and a proper investigation into the incident, as demanded by human rights defenders in the Philippines and our organisation.

On January 12, the national information agency issued a press release quoting former Police Regional Office 6 director Chief Superintendent Geary Barias justifying the killing and wounding of two agrarian reform activists, Hernando Baria and Romeo Catalan, on 23 July 2005 in Balasan, Iloilo. The release goes on to accuse the AHRC of spreading false information about the incident.

The AHRC flatly rejects Barias’ assertions and demands that the Philippine National Police makes clear on what grounds and in what capacity he was making his remarks. No mention is made in the statement of any independent investigation ever having been conducted, as called for by our organisation. Nor is there any indication of under whose authority or in what capacity Barias was making the comments.

Whether the operation was legitimate and can be justified or not is in no way a matter for concerned the police to decide. Those police stand as the accused and comments in defence by the alleged perpetrators or their superiors are of relevance only inasmuch that they may be taken in evidence by independent investigators, and weighed against other statements and evidence by a judicial authority.

In October 2006 we in fact called upon you to order a fresh investigation into this incident. We are unaware of any impartial or independent investigation since that time. Therefore, the statement of January 12 through the official government mouthpiece amounts to nothing more than an attempt by the former commander of the accused to exonerate his own men and whitewash the case.

We take this opportunity to remind you of just some of the irregularities surrounding the incident, none of which were ever addressed in the Philippine Information Agency’s release:

1. Incorrect search warrant 
The Regional Trial Court, Branch 66 in Iloilo issued a search warrant for “Herman Baria”, not Hernando Baria, the deceased victim. Under the rules of criminal procedure, valid warrants must carry the correct names of persons concerned. In this case the “legitimate police operation” was carried out on an invalid warrant, making it illegal.

2. Terms of warrant breached
The court granted the warrant to search the house of “Herman Baria” but the police used it to search a farmers’ training centre, entering around midnight and allegedly failing to identify themselves properly. A copy of the warrant also was not given to the concerned parties until 9am the following morning, although colleagues of the victims had arrived on the scene some six hours earlier.

3. False claim against victims 
In his statement, Barias maintains that, “This police operation was a response to the request for protection by local residents against harassment by armed groups of land owner Susan Bedio [sic].” In fact, the victims were members of the Asao Farmers and Residents Association, which has been lobbying for Bedro’s landholdings to be turned over to peasants under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. The claim that they could have been working for Bedro is wholly inconsistent with reality.

4. No protection given to victims 
Baria and Catalan had reportedly been requesting police protection prior to the incident, without success. The failure to respond to their requests constitutes a serious violation of the Memorandum of Agreement of 3 May 1995 between the police, Department of Interior and Local Government, and the Department of Agrarian Reform, which obliges the police to render assistance to maintain peace and order in land reform cases (reiterated in Joint Circular No. 05-02).

5. Questionable evidence
The police claim to have recovered firearms and ammunitions from the two victims, but have not produced any independent and verifiable evidence to counter claims that they planted the weapons themselves. Nor are we aware of any other substantive evidence that would demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of either of the two men.

6. Inconsistent reports
According to the information received by the AHRC, the police seizure report states that Catalan was “not around” when the initial search was conducted. But the January 12 press release acknowledges that the operation resulted in the “wounding of Romeo Catalan”. Furthermore, it states that he is now “facing charges for illegal possession of firearms and armed resistance”. However, Catalan has never received any summons informing him of these or other charges. If charges have been laid, why has the respondent not been informed?

The Asian Human Rights Commission stands by our original demand that you order an impartial and independent investigation into this case and see its findings submitted to a judicial authority. It furthermore calls upon you to take disciplinary action against Chief Superintendent Geary Barias for his premature public defence of his subordinates, which amounts to a completely unacceptable breach of police conduct, and demands that his statement be retracted and an apology issued.

The unrelenting extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and lack of effective independent investigations where police are allegedly to have been involved are a cause for growing international alarm. Greater scrutiny is leading to more and more questions about the actual intentions of the authorities to address these killings. Your action is needed to prevent whitewashing and ensure that the families of victims, survivors and witnesses obtain the justice that they deserve, as well as to protect the credibility and reputation of your agency and the government of the Philippines.

Yours sincerely

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

CC: Director-General, Philippine Information Agency 

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-004-2007
Countries : Philippines,