By LILITA BALANE
Journalists and human rights groups urged the Senate on Wednesday to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which protects the rights of suspects and prisoners when they are in the hands of authorities.
The OPCAT mandates international and domestic monitoring of prisoners, detention centers, and other areas where there is deprivation of liberty.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) marked the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture through a media forum on the situation of torture in the country.
“This event is timely considering that the Armed Forces of the Philippines is intensifying its counter-insurgency operations in Mindanao”, said Inday Espina Varona, editor of the Philippine Graphic.
Dr. Renato Basas, director of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR), said his office is doing everything to investigate and report human rights violations. He said the CHR regularly checks jails and other detention cells to assess prisoners' condition.
“The penal system of the country is in an inhuman state”, said Basas referring to the poor condition of jail facilities.
Basas reacted to the criticism that CHR is not doing its job to help bring justice to torture victims. He challenged the Senate to do its share in advancing the cause of human rights by ratifying the OPCAT.
Basas said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo already approved the OPCAT last April 2008, but the Senate has not yet ratified it.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has allegedly requested the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold the ratification of OPCAT, said Renato Mabunga, secretary-general of Philippine Alliance for Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).
Mabunga presented the fact-finding mission's report conducted last August 2007.
The investigation assessed the human rights situation in the country amid the government’s heightened military operations against rebel groups and the ratification of the anti-terror law, also known as the Human Security Act (HSA).
The human rights advocate said the fact-finding team compared the human rights standards provided by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, both ratified by the Philippine government, versus the provisions of the HSA.
Mabunga explained that the probe selected cases of reported human rights violations. Cases include the alleged arrest without warrant of peace advocate from Western Mindanao, Angelina de Ipong. A report said she was sexually assaulted and tortured when she was detained by the police.
The investigating team also looked into the alleged enforced disappearance of female student activists, Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno, and their companion, Manuel Merino. Mabunga said elements of the Philippine military have been linked to the abductions.
The group also reviewed the cases of Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo, who were allegedly held by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for 18 months.
The Manalo brothers testified that, along with other detainees, they were beaten up severely, made to bathe in their urine, and whipped with a barbed wire. Water was also poured into their nostrils and they were made to eat rotten food, they alleged.
After the investigation, the report confirmed that torture occurs in most cases when the AFP, law enforcement agencies, and civilian authorities arrest an individual suspected of committing rebellion or of being an “enemy of the State”.
Mabunga said victims of torture told the fact-finding body that there is a culture of torture within the AFP.
The investigation also criticized the vague terms provided by the anti-terror law.
“The definition of crimes as terrorism and conspiracy, provided by the HSA, is very broad and not compatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says that criminal liability and punishment be defined by clear and precise provisions in the law," the report said. It also added that the provisions in the HSA open chances for human rights violations.
Mabunga said the fact-finding group recommended the following:
free all persons arbitrarily detained in the framework of the fight against terrorism, and bring charges against them before the court of law;
suspend, investigate and charge AFP officials tagged in extra-judicial killings, disappearances, and torture;
criminalize torture, amend the HSA, and compensate torture victims and their families.
The AFP, however, told the fact-finding body that they took measures to ensure respect for human rights by providing soldiers courses on human rights laws and sending them abroad to attend international trainings. It also said that they are holding a campaign to inform soldiers on the provisions of HSA.
The AFP further said that it already created a Human Rights Office to oversee and monitor cases of human rights violations filed against soldiers.
AFP officials interviewed by the fact-finding team said they will create five general court-martials, where cases of human rights violations filed against military personnel will be tried.
Aurora Parong, executive director of Amnesty International-Pilipinas said that their group is planning to create a task force which will review government programs for human rights victims and status of prisoners in the country.
“We would like to form a task force which will look into cases of extra-judicial killings and human rights violations. Also, we would request the creation of a specialized unit of victim protection program. Witness protection is not enough, since witnesses most of the time end up becoming victims. When they disclosed what they know, their lives were put at risk.” Parong said.
Her group also urged the Department of Justice to review the witness protection program and to impose stronger penalties for human rights violators.