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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Background: Atty Rex Fernandez on Human Rights abuses in the Philippines: Rex will speak ths month in Mpls

Ed note: Click on the post for the list of seminars coming soon in the Twin Cities:

Position Paper: Human Rights in the Philippines
Attorney Rex J.M.A. Fernandez

It is a festering problem. Ever since the US propped up a dictatorship in the Philippines, impunity was born. Of the hundreds of thousands suffering human rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship of 1972-1986, including the tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings, very few had been solved, much less justice given.

These human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings have continued until the present; and until the present, rare is the case that is solved and rarely is justice given.

Continued violations of human rights are committed with the intention of concealing and hiding the perpetrators but not the crime. The perpetrators even make sure that the people will recognize it to be the work of the military and will become afraid - but not enough to file a case in court.

The recent treatment of Ms. Melissa Roxas, 31, is a case in point. She was abducted on May 19, 2009, together with two companions of a rural health survey team of Bayan - Tarlac, from a house in La Paz town, Tarlac Province of the Philippines by 15 armed men with masks. They were thrown into a van, kept blindfolded, and driven to a place near a camp where planes land and take off, where there is a firing range, cells, an office and a women’s barracks. The place is believed to be a major Fort where Ninoy Aquino and Jose Diokno were detained in the first hours after the declaration of martial law in 1972.

For a week, they were interrogated, beaten, promised death, and given a Philippine low tech version of water-boarding: plastic bags were placed over their heads and sealed, and kept there until they blacked out. They were asked if they were NPA (a rebel group) members, their positions, what houses they visited, and who they talked to. When not being tortured, they were pummeled with anti-communist sermons couched in religious language.

After discovering that Melissa Roxas was an American citizen and not a Canadian, torture eased, although interrogation continued until she was released very near her house.

The blindfold and the handcuff. The brazenness and the confidence that they cannot be touched. The place and the sounds. The location. The physical torture. The professionalism and well studied procedure in the whole process. The lecture and the sermons. The offer of friendship and the implied imminence of physical pain and possibly death.

These are the patterns of Military and government abduction in the Philippines - enforced disappearance and torture.

It also shows the influence and moral position/training of the American government over the Philippine military.

This is the not so unusual treatment by Philippine armed forces of civilians who are active in nonviolent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that help the poor and often are very critical of government corruption and insensitivity toward the plight of the poor. Over 1,000 have been killed outright on our streets, over 1000 have been tortured and over 200 have been abducted and are feared forever Disappeared in the past eight years under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as documented by a national human rights group called Karapatan (over 25 of their members victims, too) and a dozen other large international human rights and church organizations deeply concerned about human rights.

After their release, Melissa Roxas and colleagues received counsel by human rights attorney Rex Fernandez, and she has filed a Writ of Amparo (“to protect”), a procedure set up by the Philippine Supreme Court to allow access to government facilities where persons are detained and/or tortured. Melissa held back her full story until she was safely in the U.S. Now, her story can be heard on YouTube, and it is not easy to listen to, nor was it for her to tell. On July 20, she returned to the Philippines and testified to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, the Committee on Human Rights of the House of Representatives and the Court of Appeals.

The Writ of Amparo, a reaction of an exasperated Supreme Court which could not stomach the continuing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, torture, food control, hamletting and other human rights violations, is a tool to watch. Will it shield persons and propel justice?

Rex Fernandez has spent 27 years defending the unpopular in the Philippines against charges, arrests, abductions and worse done by members of state security forces during their endless “war on terror”. While there are plenty of victims, both civilians and armed rebels of several persuasions, in many places in the Philippines, Karapatan and outside HR groups focus on the innocent NGO workers who are trying to help the poor get their rights. From the murder of his law school mentor, attorney Al Surigao, in 1988, until the case of Melissa now, Rex has assisted over 150 defendants in court. He is a leading expert on the Writ of Amparo, and its uses to stop torture and other human rights violations, produce detainees and most of all to eradicate impunity. As leading counsel for Karapatan, 90% of this work is pro bono.

He will present facts and experiences on the state of Philippine jurisprudence, from court practices, to judge competency, to Supreme Court rulings and to how you win cases for the accused. The US State Department annual HR reports on the Philippines point out incompetencies and corruption of hard to imagine scales. He will discuss the Philippine government’s current War on Terror, and how the US has aided, promoted and benefited from it.

With visits this year from the US Secretary of Defense, the head of the CIA, and on July 30 the state visit of President Arroyo to see President Obama in Washington, and continued presence of 600 US troops in Mindanao, many critical issues are in transition. Will the serious HR abuses be curtailed, or allowed to continue? Will there be elections of a new president in 2010? Does the US want strong, democratic institutions in allies as close to the US as is the Philippines, or prefer (multinational) business as usual, and suppression of the poor, as usual, in that country? What might be the political fall-out of the evolving story of the treatment of Melissa Roxas, the US poster child for the real terror happening in the Philippines?

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