DAVAO CITY – As the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) announces its intention to hold a public hearing on continuing extrajudicial killings here later this month, church and civil rights groups remain skeptical that it will have any lasting effect.
The city’s highly outspoken and colorful mayor, Rodrigo Duterte who has repeatedly gone on record as saying Davao is not a safe place for criminals, has consistently denied the authorities have any link to the killings and has publicly welcomed the CHR’s planned event.
Davao has long struggled with the reputation as the killing capital of the Philippines – ever since the 1980s, when an armed vigilante group known as the Alsa Masa (Rise, People) was set up in response to a campaign of guerilla war and assassinations being waged by the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) here.
During a February dialogue organized by the city council’s Committee on Human Rights and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the Bar pointed to 813 alleged victims of summary killings by the so-called Davao Death Squads (DDS) from 1998. In January 2009 alone, 33 persons have been reported killed.
Like Duterte, the city’s police chief Senior Superintendent Ramon Apolinario has consistently rejected all claims that death squads operate in the city, and has called those with any evidence to come forward. The police and the mayor blame gang and drug wars as the primary reason for the large number of killings.
Davao City’s own police records report 221 killings in the 10 months from January through to October last year.
CHR chair Leila De Lima, who is organizing the two-day hearings starting March 30, says she is alarmed over the effects all the bloodshed is having on the psyche of the local community.
“The killings in Davao have reached a glaring and alarming proportion,” De Lima told reporters in Cebu City last month.
“Even the judges recognized that it’s time to do something. It has an effect on the consciousness of people in Davao. The culture of impunity is getting too callous already,” De Lima said. “Before, they (the killers) used to be hooded but now, they’re doing it in broad daylight, and they’re using knives and walking calmly away.”
“It’s a mentality, a mindset that is not acceptable, and we need to erase that mentality,” she said.
As part of its ongoing training on covering extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project recently organized a workshop in Davao for 60 local journalists in an effort to help them to better investigate and follow-up cases of unexplained killings.
The Alston Report
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston, who briefly visited Davao in February 2007 to look into the continuing high level of killings, noted in his 66-page final report:
“Duterte dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses.”
Alston also claimed “the police used the ‘Davao Death Squad’ as a ‘polite euphemism’ to refer vaguely to ‘vigilante groups’ when accounting for the shocking predictability with which criminals, gang members, and street children were extrajudicially executed.”
Concern over the continuing spate of unexplained killings has also been expressed by the British chairman of the UK Parliamentary Committee on the Philippines. Mark Pritchard MP told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project he raised the issue in a meeting with Mayor Duterte during a visit to Davao late last year.
History of killings
The CHR is hoping to entice witnesses to come out and speak at its public hearing – something others privately say will not happen.
But de Lima is insistent that the CHR has to try. Something, she says, has to be done. She also questions the response and position of the authorities.
“How can something as systematic and as glaring happen without the consent of powerful people?” she asked.
De Lima has already met with the mayor and says Duterte told her of the need to explore the history of the killings which trace back to the 1980s.
By the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the city had become an NPA ‘laboratory’ as it attempted to wage urban warfare on the city’s authorities: Davao was plagued by political and military executions committed by so-called liquidation squads known as ‘sparrows’ commanded by the NPA – the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The city and surrounding Davao del Sur province saw the birth of two anti-communist groups committed to fight the NPA – the Alsa Masa and the Nagkahiusang Katawhan Alang sa Kalinaw (Nakasaka, or the United Peoples for Peace).
Founders of these groups included former local government officials who maintained members were ordered not to violate human rights in their anti-insurgency campaigns. But both the NPA and the two anti-communist groups were accused of very serious and systematic human rights abuses including summary killings.
Father Amado Picardal, a local human rights advocate, says he does not believe the upcoming event will accomplish anything.
“I am glad the CHR is finally concerned about these killings. But I do not believe that a public hearing will accomplish anything. Witnesses are afraid to testify,” Picardal said.
He added it would be better for the CHR to conduct a discrete investigation. But the problem is, he says, the CHR’s mandate is limited.
“A special independent commission to investigate these killings formed by the President in coordination with the CHR and civil society is probably more effective.”
Picardal claims the killings are not random but rather part of a systematic campaign against suspected criminals using unlawful means. He maintains they are tolerated, inspired and sponsored by those in authority – yet admits not to have any proof “that will stand up in court.”
Picardal added: “These killings can never be morally justified -you cannot run after criminals using criminal means. These killings are murder. The due process of law and the presumption of innocence cannot be disregarded.”
And yet Picardal admits that whoever is responsible enjoys the support of many who are glad to see the streets safer as a result. One of these, a taxi driver who refused to be named, said that he feels safe even late at night.
“Yes the killings help keep me safe because petty crimes have been minimized,” he told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. “People are scared to commit crime.”
But others insist that not only petty criminals are targeted for attack.
Kelly Delgado, secretary general human rights group Karapatan for southern Mindanao says CHR should not just focus on the killing of criminals in Davao, but also on victims of extrajudicial killings in Davao del Sur and Compostela Valley.
Unabated yet unresolved killings of Bayan Muna (People First) organizers and peasant activists in the two provinces late last year raised questions whether they are part of an ‘undeclared’ war against critics of the Arroyo administration and suspected supporters of the communist movement.
Delgado says the killings of both suspected criminals in the city and political activists merits a deeper investigation from authorities. Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project