Time for President Aquino to tackle the Philippines’ dirty, open secret
This Monday, President Benigno Aquino delivered his fifth State of the Nation Address.
The address focused on the government’s achievements on good governance and the promise of a “righteous path”, or daang matuwid, which will not tolerate any abuse of power. Sadly, abuse of power remains widespread and human rights seems to have been excluded from this “righteous path”.
I, for one, was listening carefully for him to raise one particular issue that needs urgent attention, but that did not come up – that of torture, which is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power.
Although it is talked about little, torture is the Phillipines’ dirty, open secret. It is endemic. Even though banned in Philippine law, and even though the country has signed up to all the right international treaties on ending torture, this has amounted to little more than paper promises.
Amnesty International has received numerous and harrowing reports of the widespread use of torture and other cruel and inhuman practices by security forces.
And the police are woefully equipped to address the issue. With around a quarter of a million police officers and soldiers combined, according to the President himself, the Philippines has one of the smallest police to population ratios in the world. This means that the national police has been dependent on poorly trained but sometimes armed police auxiliaries. On the ground, police officers rely on informants and “assets” to do their policing – and sometimes extra-legal activities.
The police and their auxiliaries are, in fact, the heart of the problem – it is in police detention facilities that torture is most often used. Suspects in common criminal cases, repeat offenders, out-of-favour police informants and political activists are among those who are at particular risk. The methods used range from beatings with metal bars, to burnings with cigarette butts, electrocution, water-boarding and suffocation with plastic bags.
Compounding the problem is the almost complete impunity that the police enjoy. Police officers and their auxiliaries get away with torture almost as a standard operating procedure. Five years after the Philippines passed the Anti-Torture Act, not one single person has been convicted of torture.
The now infamous “Wheel of Torture” discovered in Laguna province in January this year – where police used a roulette wheel to decide how detainees would be tortured – is an example of how confident police are of getting away with the practice. But as despicable as it is for police officers to turn torture into entertainment, the discovery in Laguna is only the tip of the iceberg.
Take for example the case of Alfreda Disbarro, a 32-year old mother of two from Parañaque City. In October last year, police accused Alfreda of being a drug dealer. In fact, she is a former police informant who wanted out from working with the local police. Once police had taken her to their headquarters, they pinned her to a wall, repeatedly punched her, poked their fingers into her eyes, slapped her and beat her with a wooden baton and forced a mop into her mouth.
Over the following days Alfreda was in terrible pain. During this period she was photographed with 300 pesos and a sachet of drugs, and told to sign a blank sheet of paper.
Alfreda’s case would be just one of many if it wasn’t for the attention it has received thanks to campaigning by international human rights activists, including Amnesty International. Apparently shamed by an international letter writing campaign, the police in May this year started an investigation into the case by its own Internal Affairs Service. It remains to be seen what comes of the investigation, but it does offer a small ray of hope that the culture of impunity around torture could end.
Last week, on 23 July, another torture victim was released from prison. Fernando Obedencio had been detained for nine years on drugs possession charges, until a judge ruled that the court dismiss the charges as they were apparently fabricated. With Alfreda still behind bars, this is a chilling reminder of the fate that could await her and the many others who languish in Philippine jails for years while awaiting trial.
This year, Amnesty International launched a major new global campaign to end torture across the globe once and for all, in which the Philippines is one of our focus countries. We chose it not just because of the scale of the problem here, but also because there is real opportunity for change.
Despite the glaring and disappointing omission of torture from his speech on Monday, President Aquino now has a chance to show that he agrees with us. In order to show that he is serious about tackling the wider problem of abuse of power, the President must address not just corruption, but also grave human rights violations. He must ensure that the laws banning torture are strictly enforced, in particular by security forces. There is also an urgent need to address the impunity around torture – all complaints of torture must be thoroughly and impartially investigated.
The courts, the Department of Justice and government agencies mandated to ensure accountability for the abuse of power must be given their marching orders: it is time to stop torture; it is time to hold torturers to account.
In the President’s State of the Nation Address he said: “The future we desire is on the horizon: one where justice reigns supreme, and where no one will be left behind.”
These lofty words have to be backed with action. In making torture one of his highest priorities, he could put an end to perhaps the gravest abuse of power of all.
This oped was originally published in PhilStar.com