Published on August 21, 2009, 8:24 PM
The Philippine military, through its attack dogs Pastor Alcover and Jovito Palparan, are trying to discredit the Commission on Human Rights and its chairperson, Leila de Lima. Human-rights groups are understandably concerned. “Now that the CHR chairperson insists on the mandate of the commission, they consider her as an enemy,” Marie Hilao-Enriquez of Karapatan said. “That is the most dangerous mindset.”
By Ronalyn V. Olea
MANILA — For years since it was established, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a supposedly independent constitutional body whose head is appointed by the President, has struggled to gain some respect. Many had doubted its capacity to fulfill its mandate, even to be impartial.
As its leaders would readily admit, the CHR had been a toothless tiger–a perception made worse by the commission’s failure in the past to confront the government, particularly the Philippine military, for violations of human rights.
It came as a surprise to many, therefore, when the CHR began taking a more active role in recent years in investigating human-rights cases, particularly in the wake of the series of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.
The case of Melissa Roxas–the Filipino-American activist who claimed to have been abducted and tortured by soldiers and who, after going home to the United States, had gone back to the Philippines to pursue her case against the military–illustrates best this change at the CHR. Roxas did all that under the protective custody of the CHR.
To many human-rights advocates, it did not come as a surprise as well that the CHR itself had become the subject of attack for doing its mandate. Nothing illustrated this best than the CHR hearing on Roxas’s case on July 29, when Rep. Pastor Alcover Jr. of the anti-communist group Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy (Anad) asked CHR chairperson Leila de Lima if she was related to Juliet de Lima, the wife of Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Alcover apparently sought to discredit de Lima and the CHR investigation itself by trying to link de Lima to the communists. Earlier, Alcover alleged that Roxas was a communist guerrilla.
“I take offense in that kind of stance. What are you trying to insinuate?” de Lima told Alcover during the hearing. “Is this part of your psy-war? Are you questioning the credibility of the CHR chair?”
“Yes,” Alcover replied without hesitation.
De Lima told Alcover and former Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. of the Bantay party list, who also attended the hearing, not to muddle the issue. Alcover and Palparan were summoned by the commission to testify and present the alleged video and photographs showing Roxas as a member of the New People’s Army (NPA). The NPA, led by the CPP, has been waging a people’s war for four decades.
Palparan also questioned de Lima’s statement saying that Roxas’s affiliation is irrelevant to the ongoing investigation of the CHR. He said further that Roxas’s testimony is a mere propaganda against the military and the government. Palparan has been called “The Butcher” by human-rights advocates for the trail of blood he left behind in places where he had been assigned. Alcover is a self-proclaimed anti-communist crusader.
In a statement to the media the next day, de Lima confirmed that Juliet de Lima is a distant relative. “I neither denied nor concealed that. Why are the two gentlemen making a fuss about that?” she said.
“Why are they so threatened by Roxas’s case that they are on full offensive?” de Lima said. “It seems that their personal crusade is to block an inquiry whose goal is to search for truth. Why are they so frightened of such scrutiny? No one is respondent yet because no one has been identified so far. Does anyone feel alluded to for past acts?”
When asked to comment, CHR commissioner Jose Manuel Mamauag told Bulatlat that it’s a peripheral issue. “Their [Alcover and Palparan] mere presence is already an answer to their question on the credibility of the CHR.”
“Regardless of political color, we stick to the main issue of allegation of abduction and torture [of Roxas],” Mamauag said.
“This is the first time they [Palparan and Alcover] encountered a CHR chair who insists on the independence of the commission, who takes her job seriously and who can be depended on by human rights victims. They are threatened by this fact,” Karapatan secretary general Marie Hilao-Enriquez said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Enriquez said Palparan and Alcover aim to destroy the credibility of the CHR as an institution. “For them, there is no place for dissenting opinion,” she said.
“The fact that Palparan and Alcover are now speaking against Roxas’s testimony bolsters our belief that the military is behind her abduction and torture,” Enriquez said.
Visit to Fort Magsaysay
A second visit to Fort Magsaysay, the camp of the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division, to ascertain the allegations of Roxas earned for de Lima and the CHR yet another barrage of attacks.
In the early morning of July 30, the CHR team, led by de Lima, visited Fort Magsaysay, this time with Roxas. In her affidavit, Roxas’s description of the place of her detention bears similarities with Fort Magsaysay,
Enriquez, who went with the team, said there were obvious renovations on the compound they inspected. “There is a new wall, a new gazebo. The pathway has been changed. The jail cell identified by Melissa is now a storage room.”
But the compound was indeed near a firing range and an airstrip, said Enriquez, referring to Roxas’s assertion. When they went inside one of the comfort rooms, Enriquez said, Roxas was trembling and told her: “This is where they gave me a bath.”
A day after the said visit, Maj. Gen. Ralph Villanueva, commander of the 7th Infantry Division, described the CHR visit as “cunning and deceiving.”
In a report he submitted to Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Victor Ibrado, Villanueva said the CHR used the visit to Fort Magsaysay to look into cases of missing activists apart from Roxas’s case. He said the visit could just be a “fishing expedition” to implicate members of the military in the cases of missing activists.
In his report to Ibrado, Villanueva accused de Lima of “showing obvious bias by not being frank and forthright in her dealings” with the 7th Infantry Division. He even said he was not initially aware that Raymond Manalo, a torture survivor, was with de Lima during the visit.
In a letter to Ibrado dated August 1, de Lima said Villanueva’s statements are “unacceptable and uncalled for.” “The assertions made by Maj. Gen. Villanueva are untrue and deplorable. We cannot allow the commission’s credibility and independence to be undermined capriciously and without basis,” de Lima said in her four-page letter to Ibrado.
“As a human-rights institution, we respect Maj. Gen. Villanueva’s right to freedom of expression and opinion. However, we draw the line at false accusations and baseless innuendos,” de Lima added.
As to Villanueva’s misgivings about the inclusion of Manalo in the visiting team, de Lima asserted that the CHR has the prerogative to determine who shall allow to take part in its inspections.
Article XIII, Section 18 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution lays down the CHR’s powers and functions including, among others, to investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights; to exercise visitorial powers over jails, prisons, or detention facilities; and to monitor the Philippine Government’s compliance with international treaty on human rights.
“The Constitution grants the commission broad powers of investigation and visitation. And it has been our firm and consistent position that CHR does not need prior clearance from any authority to fulfill its investigative and visitorial mandate,” de Lima said.
Karapatan’s Enriquez believes that what the CHR is doing is a boost to human rights in the Philippines. She, however, bewailed the attempts by the military to discredit the commission. “Now that the CHR chairperson insists on the mandate of the commission, they consider her as an enemy,” Enriquez said. “That is the most dangerous mindset. Their bigotry kills.” (Bulatlat.com)