Junio 11, 2007

Rights groups warn of rise in abductions in Philippines

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: June 11, 2007

MANILA: Berlin Guerrero has been an activist for much of his adult life. Aside from being a pastor for a Protestant church in Laguna, a province just south of Manila, he has also been involved in protests and in organizing Bayan Muna, the Philippines' largest leftist party.

But nothing prepared him for what happened on May 27. He had just attended a service that day when a van without license plates cut into his path. Several men got out, dragged him into the vehicle and sped away, leaving behind Guerrero's horrified wife and children.

In the next 12 hours, Guerrero recounted in a sworn statement he released three days later, he was tortured and accused of being a Communist.

Guerrero's abduction and his claims of torture highlighted what human rights groups consider to be a resurgence of "enforced disappearances" and torture in the Philippines, which many Filipinos thought had ended with the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. His dictatorship was responsible for the disappearance of more than 1,500 people, according to human rights groups.

"Abductions are on the rise. There were more abductions than killings in the last three months," said Renato Reyes Jr., secretary-general of Bayan, an alliance of leftist groups.

The number of documented abductions, according to Desaparecidos, a group of relatives of the disappeared, has been increasing, from 7 in 2001 to 28 in 2004, the year the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo began to be besieged by allegations that she rigged the 2004 presidential vote.

Last year, 75 were abducted, the group reported.

So far this year, it said, 19 have been kidnapped by people suspected of being military agents, 10 of them in May, including Guerrero.

Two turned up dead.

Moreover, most of the victims of the disappearances - 106 of the 198, according to Desaparecidos - are farmers and workers identified with leftist groups and labor unions, a majority of them from provinces that are among the most militarized in the country.

Prior to this wave of abductions, the human rights situation in the Philippines had been characterized by a series of extrajudicial killings of leftists, which are also blamed on the military. Nearly 900 people have been summarily executed since Arroyo took power in 2001, according to Karapatan, an alliance of Philippine human rights groups. In recent months, the killings have generated international attention, embarrassing the administration.

The abductions and torture in the past three weeks suggest, according to Reyes, a possible shift in strategy by state security forces designed to blunt the international outrage at the killings but at the same time continue "to strike fear in the hearts of critics," Reyes said. "The perpetrators have resorted to quiet abductions instead of high-profile assassinations," he said.

Last week, France urged the Philippines to ratify the United Nations' International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. "We do regret and condemn disappearances anywhere in the world," Gérard Chesnel, the French ambassador to the Philippines, said last week. "It's something that democratic countries cannot accept."

The European Union, which has been consistently monitoring the human rights situation in the Philippines, will send a team of experts to Manila this month to determine whether the government needs assistance to address human rights problems.

"Hardly a day goes by without a fresh reminder of the essential importance of human rights in this country," Alistair MacDonald, head of the EU delegation to Manila, told Agence France-Presse last month.

The Roman Catholic Church has also weighed in. Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, expressed outrage over the disappearances, which he said "shamed and saddened" the church.

Felixberto Calang, a Protestant bishop and human rights advocate, maintains that these disappearances are part of a campaign against political dissenters by the state. "It is doing so with impunity, without fear of accountability, and in full view of the international community that has repeatedly condemned the country's darkening human rights record," he said.

The military has repeatedly defended itself against the allegations, saying last month that it does not condone human rights violations and that "any soldier found guilty of such will face the full force of the penalty corresponding to his crime." It challenged its accusers to file charges in court.

Army officials did not respond to repeated efforts to contact them.

The Arroyo administration cited Manila's re-election to the UN Human Rights Council as evidence that it was working to investigate human rights violations.

"The Philippines' re-election to the council is a clear vote of confidence for the Philippines and President Arroyo's efforts to move forward the global agenda of upholding and protecting human rights," said Alberto Romulo, Arroyo's secretary for foreign affairs. The Human Rights Council was formed in 2006 to address human rights issues. Its 47 members, who will serve for three years each, are elected by a majority of the UN General Assembly.

Guerrero, 40, recounted that his captors repeatedly hit him with all sorts of objects, including a water bottle. His captors also put a plastic bag over his head. "They threatened to kill me, burn me or bury me," he said. The men took his laptop and replaced its contents with subversive documents, he said. "They called me 'pastor impostor,' " Guerrero said.

The country's police chief, Oscar Calderon, promised last week to investigate the Guerrero incident.

"This matter is being looked into, and we will file cases against those who will be found guilty," Calderon said.

Since Guerrero's abduction, two more activists have disappeared. One, Gabriel Rey Cardiño, a Bayan Muna official in Cotabato Province, in the south, was snatched on June 6. Two days later, Cardiño, 27, was found wandering along a highway, shocked and bruised.


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