The Philippines has a dark, open secret

When a man’s severed head turns up in Manila Bay with three gunshots through the cranium, one would reasonably expect the authorities to fast-track the investigation of such a grisly crime. But justice for the victim and the family, who identified the remains as Darius Evangelista in 2010, is now more than four years overdue.

The reason – the killers appear to have been police officers themselves, shooting him in the head after they had tortured him.  The victim was last seen alive in police custody, and fellow detainees have testified hearing a police officer order another to “finish him off”. Police torture is commonplace in the Philippines and impunity for it the norm. Amnesty International’s latest report, Above the Law, released today, examines more than 50 allegations – including waterboarding, rape, mock executions, asphyxiating, electric shocks, shooting and beating – made in the past five years. There are hundreds more.

Astonishingly, despite the number of complaints and an array of international commitments to prohibit torture, not a single police officer has ever been convicted for torture. That fact becomes even more shocking when you consider that the Philippines introduced a landmark Anti-Torture Act five years ago specifically to tackle the problem.

In Darius’ case, despite mobile phone footage showing him held in custody by uniformed, identifiable police officers as he is tortured, three of the seven officers who were criminally charged with torture resulting in his death have not even been arrested. His family is still waiting for those officers to be brought to trial.

Darius’ is not the only reported case where police visit horrific violence on their captives and get away with it – there are hundreds more. Most survivors of torture are too terrified to talk about their ordeal. Those who complain risk retribution, harassment or intimidation from hired thugs or the police officers themselves.

Single mother Alfreda Disbarro is one of those few who have the courage to speak out. On 3 October 2013, she was picked up by police near her house. She told Amnesty International that an officer at the police headquarters in Parañaque City placed a plastic bottle on her head and aimed his weapon at it, threatening to shoot it. She said that another officer kicked her, punched her, poked her in both eyes and banged her head against the wall, before stuffing a damp and dirty mop into her mouth.

A medical exam revealed contusions to the skin on her left shoulder, hands, nape, abdomen, her arms and forearms, left thigh and left leg. When her sister complained to the Commission of Human Rights about her treatment, her family began to receive threats. They noticed they were being followed and eventually were forced to move house.

Alfreda is one of the few survivors interviewed for Amnesty International’s report to make a formal complaint. Many saw no point, knowing that a complaint would simply mean trying to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops as they attempted to follow a set of unclear and inconsistent rules and procedures, only to eventually have it dismissed on a technicality. Five of those that filed complaints have already withdrawn their complaint because of fear of retribution, pay-offs from their torturers or threats.

The situation can’t continue. The Philippines is doing itself a disservice – the country has an exemplary record when it comes to signing up to human rights treaties, but without the robust prosecution of torturers and determined efforts to prevent torture, these human rights commitments risk becoming empty promises. President Benigno S. Aquino III’s government is missing an opportunity to become a shining example of practical as well as legal commitment to human rights in Asia.

I came here this week to launch Amnesty International’s campaign, Stop Torture, in the Philippines. We chose to focus our global campaign on the country now because torture is harming both ordinary people and the country’s reputation. With a concerted effort there is no reason why the government cannot wipe out torture and the culture of impunity that facilitates it.

Prevention is key – the Philippines must urgently establish a National Preventive Mechanism which allows for unannounced spot checks on places of detention by independent observers. When prevention fails, reports of torture must be investigated – immediately, impartially, independently and effectively. Prosecutions must be robust and court processes should no longer be plagued with years of delay. Streamlining the complaints procedure and replacing the current complex web of agencies responsible with one unified, independent and effective police complaints commission would go a long way to enabling this.

At the beginning of his presidency, President Aquino gained praise for promising to end the abuse of power (a policy known as “no wangwang”) . But, as the evidence clearly shows, this abuse continues, destroying lives. Ensuring that no one is held above the law for committing torture could be President Aquino’s legacy for the Filipino people.