MANILA, Philippines – Thirty-nine-year-old Richard*, a shopkeeper from Quezon City, is lucky to be alive.
“Lord, I don’t want to die yet,” was the only thing on his mind as 3 policemen apprehended him, stuffed him inside a van, tied his hands behind his back with wire, broke his left arm, and wrapped packing tape around his head before stepping on it.
“They then stepped on my head [as I lay on the floor of the van]. I had difficulty breathing. At that point, I thought I was going to die soon. Lord, I don’t want to die yet.”
The 3 cops then stopped the van and dragged Richard outside. One cop ordered another cop to shoot him. Four bullets went through his body; a fifth hit his head. He hit the ground and lost consciousness.
Richard later woke up, removed the tape around his head and almost passed out again before passers-by brought him to a nearby government hospital. While recovering from his gunshot wounds, Richard said a “police investigator” visited daily, offering to pay for his hospital bills.
After 5 days, Richard was discharged, all expenses paid by the cop but on one condition – he would have to report to a designated police station that night. Richard never did and instead went to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). He has since been admitted to the Justice Department’s Witness Protection Program.
Richard’s story, human rights group Amnesty International says, is only one of many that illustrates how “anyone arrested on suspicion of theft or other criminal activity in the Philippines risks being tortured or otherwise ill-treated in police custody.”
The Philippines is one of 5 countries in an Amnesty study as part of its stop torture campaign, along with Nigeria, Mexico, Western Sahara, and Uzbekistan.
Its 2014 report, “Above the law: Police torture in the Philippines,” notes that despite a law that makes torture illegal, “torture is still rife, and that the overwhelming majority of reports of torture involve police officers.”
This, even if the Philippines is “seen on the international stage and in Asia as a champion for human rights,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty in an interview with Rappler.
On paper, the country’s policies against torture are top notch: the Philippines is signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and in 2009, passed the Anti-Torture Act.
“On the legal side and by international standards, [the Philippines’ stand against torture is] pretty good. So we were very shocked ourselves when we were checking the on-the-ground situation [and we saw] widespread use of torture by the police forces,” said Shetty.
Forms of torture
The 120-page report, released on Thursday, December 4, is based on more than 50 interviews with police torture victims and their family members. But Shetty said the report is only the tip of the iceberg and many more cases remain unreported.
Amnesty interviewed Richard in 2013, almost a year after his encounter. In the interview, Richard said he was not told why he was being arrested. The 3 men were in civilian clothes but were riding a police car when they accosted him.
[Richard] said the police merely asked what was in his pocket and told him: “You just got out of jail and you no longer know how to show respect to the police. You’re useless.”
Shetty said Amnesty International decided to zero in on the Philippine National Police (PNP) because based on data, most cases of alleged torture involved the police.
One of the more recent and high-profile cases of cops caught torturing suspects happened in January 2014 when regional intelligence police based in Biñan, Laguna, were caught running its lock-up cell as a “torture facility.”
- Systematic beatings;
- Kicks to different parts of the body;
- Hit with truncheons, rifle butts or similar objects;
- Being blindfolded and handcuffed behind their backs;
- Being forced to sit or lie in uncomfortable positions for long periods without food or water;
- Being threatened at gun point;
- Being subjected to a kind of “Russian roulette”;
- Electric shocks;
- Made to swallow huge volumes of water;
- Plastic bag put over their face to the point of near-asphyxiation;
- Repeated physical activity;
- Hanging from bars in their cells for long periods of time;
- Bullets squeezed hard between their fingers;
- And being made to witness or listen as their fellow-suspects were tortured or ill-treated.
Public outcry was swift and fierce.
In a matter of days, the PNP’s command ordered the lock-up facility closed. All policemen suspected of involvement were relieved, with a few officials also relieved over “command responsibility.”
“Even if somebody is suspected of a crime, there is a judicial process. In fact, many of the people we talked to, they say: sure, we committed a crime, but that doesn’t mean we can be tortured,” said Shetty.
Most of the people detained in the Biñan jail were suspected drug pushers who were still awaiting their day in court. They have since been relocated to other jails in the area.
From January to July 2014 alone, 22 out of 28 alleged cases of torture recorded by the CHR involve cops. Most torture victims, said Shetty, come from impoverished backgrounds.
“Normally [the torture victims are] suspected of small criminal activity. So already, the tendency of the police forces is that when you’re already suspected of criminal activity, you (police) can do whatever you want,” he said.
Based on their interviews, Amnesty International said those “at risk” of police torture are suspected juvenile offenders, suspected repeat offenders, suspects who allegedly wronged police officers or their family, and police “assets” or informants who fell out of favor with cops.
Minors are easy prey for wayward cops, according to the report. Back in 2012, 16-year-old Julius* was detained by police after he was accused of stealing the earrings of a barangay captain.
The 4 policemen placed bullets between his fingers then squeezed them tightly.
“There were marks on my fingers even after they took the bullets out,” Julius told Amnesty. The cops then beat his soles with a truncheon.
He knew he was wronged, but Julius did not file a complaint.
“It’s better to be jailed at once than be interviewed by the police, because the police will kill you,” he said.
An ugly history of human rights abuses is a huge chip on the PNP’s shoulder. Founded in 1991 after the EDSA revolution, the PNP traces its roots to the Philippine Constabulary which, during Martial Law, was part of the Armed Forces.
In a previous interview with Rappler, CHR Chairman Etta Rosales said it’s the PNP’s history and its “militarized” past that make it difficult for some of its men and women to be truly human rights-centered.
“Utak pulbura (war freak)” is how Rosales put it.
During martial rule, many political detainees were held in Camp Crame, the PNP headquarters, where they were systematically tortured and abused. To this day, the PNP struggles to shed that image.
For Shetty, the 2014 report is not about the past but understanding a culture that seems to consent to human rights abuses.
One problem Amnesty International found was that some police personnel resort to “shortcuts” when investigating cases and arresting suspects.
“The PNP depends on an overstretched police force which, coupled with an underdeveloped forensic investigative capacity and dependency on testimonial evidence, means that personnel are often predisposed to taking ‘shortcuts’ in their arrests and criminal investigations,” noted the report.
This is especially true in high-profile cases “where the police’s public reputation is at stake.” In the Philippines, it is not uncommon to hear of key suspects who later recant their testimonies, accusing the police of making them confess under duress.
The group also raised concern over the PNP’s use of “auxiliary” forces – both formal and informal – who are “handpicked by police officers to assist them through providing information, support in covert operations and, in some cases, performance of extra-legal activities in exchange for a fee.”
These “auxiliaries,” Amnesty International noted, tend to engage in unofficial and undocumented operations where a lot of the abuses occur.
Action against a ‘national shame’
Despite the number of cases filed against the police, other law enforcement groups and even the military, there have been zero convictions made under the Anti-Torture Act of 2009.
To Shetty, this is where the problem lies: human rights continue to be violated, and torture still accepted because people think they can get away with it.
“What is the Philippines of the future? Is it going to be a Philippines where torture is a default option?” he said.
There are many ways – 11 to be exact, according to police officials – wherein victims of police torture can air their grievances. There’s the PNP itself, the Ombudsman, the National Police Commission (NAPOLCOM), the People’s Law Enforcement Board (PLEB), and the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service (IAS), among others.
In many cases though, victims are either unaware of these options or are unwilling to put their fate in institutions they feel are not independent.
The NAPOLCOM, which hears administrative complaints against police personnel, counts the PNP chief as one of its commissioners. The PNP’s IAS, meanwhile, was initially designed to be headed by a civilian.
The current IAS head is a police general and the office is also directly under the office of the PNP chief.
And then, of course, there’s the notoriously slow Philippine justice system. “The only way you can break this vicious cycle is by ensuring justice and accountability. This situation of 5 years and no conviction, no accountability just has to end,” Shetty added.
Amnesty International has been making the rounds in Manila in the days leading to the release of the report. Shetty said he has met with the PNP’s top brass, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and legislators, among others.
“You have a president whose initial speeches were all about his commitment to human rights. But this time, he wasn’t even keen on meeting us. There’s no point in denying the facts, in hiding from reality,” added the Amnesty International chief.
The organization is also calling for a review of the Anti-Torture Act on its sixth year.
The goal, said Shetty, is to turns political rhetoric into action.
“One of our goals is to make a call to the President, to the leaders in the country, to make a stand on zero tolerance. It’s not a matter of making one more speech. We’ve had enough of speeches,” he said. – Rappler.com
*Names have been changed
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