DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/07 October) – The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) which released in April this year a 103-page report on the alleged death squad killings in Davao City, has urged courts in Davao City and Manila to “cooperate fully with investigations into death squad killings, in line with recent recommendations by a UN body, instead of undermining efforts to bring killers to justice.” Human Rights Watch also called on acting Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera “to publicly condemn the death squad killings and remind judges to act independently and efficiently to aid investigations.”
In a press statement dated October 6, HRW said “death squads operating in Davao City have killed more than 926 people, mostly poor and marginalized victims, such as alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children. In April, Human Rights Watch released a report that concluded that police officers and local officials were involved or complicit in the Davao City killings.
HRW noted more killings have been reported. “Regional State Prosecutor Antonio Arellano reported 22 victims of purported death-squad killings in August and September 2009,” it said.
Arellano clarified to MindaNews that the report did not come from him but from the media who asked him in a press conference. He said he does not have the figures on the killings and that when media gave him a figure, he said “if that figure is correct, that’s disturbing.”
The Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE) handed over to CHR chair Leila de Lima in the March 2009 public hearing in Davao City a documentation of at least 890 cases of alleged summary killings, from August 19, 1998 to March 27, 2009.
HRW said judges “have delayed judicial proceedings and denied search warrants, while those leading the investigation have been required to respond to criminal charges.”
It added that a multi-agency task force that includes the Commission on Human Rights, police, army, and other government agencies had “taken evidence in private and searched alleged grave sites, but harassment and judicial delays have hindered efforts to search on land belonging to a former police officer.”
“Local authorities and powers are doing their best to stymie investigations into the Davao Death Squad, as the task force looks more closely at local officials’ involvement,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW deputy Asia director.
“They’re using intimidation tactics and bureaucratic delays to frustrate justice,” she said.
HRW’s report launched in April and titled “You can die anytime: Death squad killings in Mindanao,” found “evidence of complicity and at times direct involvement of government officials and members of the police in killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS).”
Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said there are no state-sponsored killings in the city. Police officials at the public inquiry also denied involvement of its personnel in the killings.
But the Human Rights Watch report said “there is an almost complete lack of political will by the government at both local and national levels to address targeted killings and take action against the perpetrators” and that based on “consistent, detailed, and compelling accounts from families and friends of victims, eyewitnesses of targeted killings, barangay officials, journalists, community activists, and the ‘insiders,’ Human Rights Watch has concluded that a death squad and lists of people targeted for killings exist in Davao City.”
“We also conclude that at least some police officers and barangay officials are either involved or complicit in death squad killings. Human Rights Watch believes that such killings continue and the perpetrators enjoy impunity largely because of the tolerance of, and in some cases, outright support from local authorities,” it said.
On the day of the HRW report launching on April 7, Philippine National Police director general Jesus Versoza, ordered “all police units to intensify investigation and intelligence gathering to identify and arrest persons or groups involved in the killing of suspected criminal elements in Davao City.”
Verzosa directed PNP regional director, Chief Superintendent Pedro Tango, a lawyer, to gather evidence and file charges against suspects involved in these killings.
“I expect lower unit commanders to take the cue from my instructions to their Regional Director to go hard against persons or groups behind the series of unexplained killings in Davao City, “ Verzosa said, adding, “even the most hardened criminals deserve their day in court, because they too have rights under the law that should be respected, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a competent court.”
Sr. Supt. Ramon Apolinario on April 8 said he had yet to read the HRW report but told about the report’s findings that the killers’ “amo” (boss or handlers) are police officers or retired police officers, Apolinario replied, “if that is the report, then they should be naming names para imbestigahan na natin, di ba?” (so we can investigate, right?).
On October 2, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the Philippines to take “all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings of children and to thoroughly investigate all alleged cases of killings and bring the perpetrators to justice.” This followed the committee’s review of the Philippines’ compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child on September 15.
HRW said the CHR has spearheaded efforts to investigate the death squads, holding three public hearings in Davao City since March.
On June 17, the commission set up a multi-agency task force, which it chairs, consisting of the Philippines National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Health, Justice, and National Defense, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Police from the task force obtained a search warrant on July 3 for a firing range in Davao City, based on the sworn statement of a former self-confessed death squad member. The firing range is on land belonging to a former police officer. Police applied to a Manila court for the warrant, alleging that the respondents have connections and influence with court personnel in Davao. On July 9, the property owner filed an urgent motion to quash the search order, which remains before the court, awaiting resolution.
HRW said a special investigation unit from the national police conducted the search from July 5 to 11. “A July 12 medico-legal officer’s report stated that they had found the remains of at least three individuals. The search continued even though lawyers representing the property owner went to the site on July 6, demanding that the search team stop digging and threatening them with criminal prosecution,” it added.
“According to media reports and interviews with commission members, on July 6, the search team identified what appeared to be a human bone in an adjacent area of the former police officer’s property not covered by the initial search warrant. The team secured the area while the task force applied for a new search warrant in a Davao court. That court denied the application on July 7, on grounds of lack of sufficient evidence, after the matter was passed through four judges,” it said.
The police, it said, applied to a Manila court, which issued the warrant for the adjacent area on July 10. “In searching that area, the special investigation unit recovered human remains showing gunshot injuries to the skull, ammunition of various sizes and caliber, and three sets of license plates. But almost two weeks later, the Manila court canceled the warrant at a hearing on the application of the property owner, meaning the remains and items discovered cannot be used as evidence. The court failed to give the police three days’ notice of the hearing as required by law, and did not give reasons for its decision. On August 14, the police asked the court to reconsider its decision, but it has not made its decision,” it said.
“Judges are clearly nervous about matters relating to the Davao Death Squad,” said Pearson.
“In a country where judges themselves have been victims of extrajudicial killings, this is not surprising, but the government needs to protect judges and ensure that they can act without fear or favor,” she said.
Arellano explained to MindaNews that people should understand that “in our courts of law, we operate on evidence.”
“The rule of law is based on evidence,” he said. (MindaNews)