PHILIPPINES: Escalating poll violence symptoms of a corrupted, rotten system

As the campaign period is ongoing and elections will be held on May 14 there is also an increasingly alarming trend of election-related violence. Targeted killings and ambushes of sectoral and local candidates, either a result of fierce political rivalry or threats, had since been taking place–a cycle of violence that has become a subconsciously acceptable fact of life in the Philippines’ electoral process. These are among the many instances of how the country’s system had become corrupted and rotten, in particular on security, investigation and prosecution matters.

The election period is the time where both allies and foes can either turn against each other by way of exposing corrupt and illegal practices. Whistle blowers and those who have personal knowledge of a public official’s illegal acts while in position come out in public in an effort to discredit candidates. Friends, relatives and even family members become fierce foes in an attempt to eliminate any threats to their political aspirations that might damage their political standing. What we see are potential witnesses of criminal acts committed by public officials coming forward, whatever their motives are. The candidates are likewise so seriously threatened that they have to seek protection from the police while campaigning, but not all of them are lucky to receive protection and some are killed either before receiving it.

In the event wherein witnesses, whistle blowers or political rivals are killed, there is the likelihood that their case will go unresolved and the killers unpunished. Firstly, the police investigation process does not provide protection to witnesses to the crime. Thus, there is likelihood that the police will focus seriously on the political motive of the killing, rather than the possibility that it could have been perpetrated by others who might have taken advantage of the situation. Incidents like this, and to exploit the ineffective investigation of the police, could be potential material for political propaganda that could be seriously damaging even for innocent persons. The intention of finding the truth is subverted by the lack of witnesses, propaganda and the lack of the capability of the police to investigate. The result is simply that the case will not be solved.

Secondly, one of the reasons is as to why the witnesses delayed in coming out in public. Obviously they find it suitable to do this during an election period because they could at least obtain some sort of protection, no matter how unofficial and negligible it is. Any public officials and politicians would obviously ensure provision of protection for individuals when they could gain something from them, or boost their political standing and credibility. But soon after the witnesses and whistle blowers would find themselves once again out in the open once the politician has won. Unlike during the election period, getting security and protection is completely impossible for witnesses or any individuals facing threats. What is feasible and practical in reality is informal protection–those provided by politicians, influential persons, church organizations and the like–but these are not official as provided by law–the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act (RA 6981). Still witnesses in these situations faces serious risks and threats to their lives.

Thirdly, even criminal and cases of corrupt practice proceed to prosecution after the election period and aggrieved parties are in power, still there is little assurance the perpetrators are prosecuted or punished. The classic example was the assassination of the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino during the Marcos regime. Years after he was killed, his wife, Corazon, took over power by way of the peaceful people’s revolt in 1986. But even after Corazon was in power, the likelihood of her husband’s case being resolved is negligible. There are allegations that the mastermind and real perpetrators may have not been disclosed, and those prosecuted have likewise professed innocence to the assassination. Whatever the case is, the prosecution is delayed and inconclusive. This is the fact of life in the country’s policing and prosecution system.

In the Philippines, the prosecution of perpetrators and offenders in recent times has proven almost impossible. Not only due to extreme delays and lack of resources, the ongoing practices of public prosecutors are in itself arbitrary. In recent times, although the law requires and the prosecutors are mandated to prosecute of all unlawful offenses, the usual practice however is otherwise. Prosecutors had taken up the practice of settling the disputes and criminal cases outside court. This, presumably in an effort to prevent the piling up of cases in court, they have become the arbiter instead and the government directly endorses this as methods to promptly and to speedy resolved cases. The prosecutors could find this practice as a convenient excuse not to perform their duties. Often prosecutors are even complaining of over criminalization of offenses, and have already downplayed victims complaining of torture as normal. The victims and complainants are often left with no option but to settle amicably.

For victims and complainants who decided to settle cases outside court and those vulnerable to being offered money, in most cases does not mean they are no longer interested in seeking legal action. It is the harsh situation and the systematic defects that frustrates them and forced them to the corner to yield. In a condition of insecurity, lack of protection, the delays and high cost in the prosecution of cases, among others, the entrenched bad habit of “forgiving and forgetting” have pierced into the fabric of Filipino society. It is the impossibility of prosecuting perpetrators in a rotten criminal justice system that forced victims to give up and yield. Nothing is wrong with the witnesses, victims and complainants refusing or giving up their cases, but it is the rotten system that forced them to do so that went wrong.

What is even more alarming in recent times is that none of these defects, in particular the country’s policing and prosecution systems, have been taken seriously as important issues. Not even the electorate, who has all the right to demand to ensure this, seriously considers this as a priority. In Hong Kong, the election turnout for Filipinos’ absentee voting was extremely low, blaming distrust and possible cheating of the electoral process that discourages them to cast votes. What is even more frightening are people are now directly or indirectly giving up their right to vote, even in normal situations. Once again, the electorates are forced by conditions in the country to distrust and lose faith that change is possible in a rotten system.

After May 14, the political leadership–from local, national and sectoral–could change; but unless the core of why injustice, corruption and poverty, among others, is effectively and properly addressed by giving priority to improving the country’s criminal justice system and to ensure its functioning, no substantial progress will ever be achieved. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the Filipino and the international community concerned about the worsening condition of human rights in the country to take this opportunity to discuss and to reflect on this systemic defect to give meaning to the electoral process and discourse. Unless the electorate and the leadership deeply reflect on this systemic defect, the cycle of escalating poll violence, assurance of complete impunity and the like remains inevitable in a rotten system. These problems for a long time have been a reflection of the collapse of the rule of law in the country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-092-2007
Countries : Philippines,
Issues : Judicial system, Police violence, Victims assistance & protection,