PHILIPPINES: Sense of urgency sorely needed in rights abuse investigations
On June 5, the regional office of the Commission on Human Rights in General Santos City, southern Philippines, formally informed torture victim Jejhon Macalinsal and two companions that it would take up their four-year-old complaint of torture against the police, if they decide to pursue it. A lawyer representing the commission told them to execute an affidavit on June 7 against the officers at the General Santos City Police Office who arrested and allegedly tortured them in April 2002 over the bombing of a local mall. Macalinsal, Aron Salah and Abubakar Amilhasan were allegedly brutally tortured and sexually humiliated over a number of days following their arrest. The three men claim that they were then falsely charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives but not with the bombing.
Four years on, the police officials involved in leading the arrest and ordering the detention of the three alleged victims--former city police director Superintendent Jeorge Aquisap and former Police Regional Office director Senior Superintendent Bartolome Baluyot--have already been transferred and retired from service respectively. They have never been held accountable and may yet escape any responsibility. Macalinsal, Salah and Amilhasan have not been afforded adequate treatment for their injuries and for the trauma that they suffered. Macalinsal, the most seriously injured and traumatised, has partly recovered through self-medication and self-help trauma treatment, in the absence of government support.
The commission's decision to take up the case is obviously welcome, but equally obviously, it is long overdue. Its consistent failure to act promptly on complaints in grievous human rights cases suggests that it is sorely lacking in the sense of urgency needed to afford victims prompt redress and rehabilitation, and guarantee that justice is done. Its much-needed role in assisting victims with appropriate physical and psychological rehabilitation, as well as in filing charges against the alleged perpetrators, necessitates a timely and efficient response that appears to be absent from many, if not most, cases that it handles.
Although legal action against state officers can still be pursued some years after an alleged incident, not only does the delay cause further anguish and suffering to the victims but it also greatly undermines the possibilities of success. The newfound willingness of the commission to pursue a case may not in itself be sufficient to get it to court. Evidence of physical and psychological damage may be very hard to determine years after the event. Physicians and psychiatrists that may be able to make quick and decisive assessments in the days, weeks and even months after torture or other abuse are much less likely to be able or willing to do the same years later. Many other aspects of a case may be weakened by it being prolonged in this manner.
It must also be said that the commission needs to be pushed hard to take up any single case with the degree of seriousness required to get the job done. Not only where Macalinsal and his colleagues are concerned has it failed to get involved in the manner that would otherwise be expected: torture victims Michael Bautista and Benjamin Agustines, for intance--who have alleged that they were brutally beaten by a military agent on 31 October 2005--have also had to wait for investigations and have been unable to obtain adequate physical and psychological treatment.
In this respect, the Asian Human Rights Commission recalls the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations on the Philippines' compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in December 2003. The Committee clearly stipulated in its paragraph 12 that, "The State party [Philippines] should ensure that all allegations of torture are effectively and promptly investigated by an independent authority, that those found responsible are prosecuted, and that victims are given adequate compensation. Free access to legal counsel and a doctor should be guaranteed in practice, immediately after arrest and during all stages of detention."
Effectively and promptly: two key words in this recommendation that all government agencies in the Philippines, as well as the Commission on Human Rights, must take to heart. The parliament is due to sit on a bill the criminalise torture. The Asian Human Rights Commission has already warmly welcomed this news and expects that it will be made into law shortly. At that time it will become imperative for all government agencies to give full meaning to these words "effectively and promptly" in all cases of torture, including those described above. But the commission should not need to wait until then. It should seek to improve its work by more aggressively and assertively following cases, particularly those where gross violations by the police and other state officers are alleged, and bringing a sense of urgency into its daily activities on behalf of victims. To do this, its investigators should be required to make performance pledges that upon receipt of complaints they will pursue them vigorously with a view to lodging criminal charges in court promptly in every case where it is deemed appropriate.