A pervasive culture of impunity is allowing torture by police to go unchecked in the Philippines, Amnesty International’s latest report, Above the Law: Police Torture in the Philippines, revealed today as it launched a major new campaign to stop torture in the country.
Despite the country’s ratification of the two key international anti-torture treaties, methods such as electrocution, mock executions, waterboarding, asphyxiating with plastic bags, beatings and rape continue to be employed by officers who torture for extortion and to extract confessions.
“Too many police officers in the Philippines are all gun and no badge – abusing their power while making a mockery of their duty to protect and serve the people,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, in Manila for the launch of the campaign.
“The government has the legislation in place, now it needs to enforce it or risk the police placing themselves above the law.”
The passage of a progressive Anti-Torture Act five years ago should have been a landmark moment, but not a single official has been convicted so far, raising a large question mark as to the Act’s success.
The Philippines is the third of five countries to become the focus of a global Amnesty International campaign, Stop Torture, at a pivotal moment in the country’s development. Above the Law highlights how and why the government is failing to enforce the prohibition against torture.
“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 these human rights commitments risk becoming empty promises,” said Salil Shetty.
“The government is squandering an opportunity to become a shining example of commitment to human rights in Asia.”
The report is based on in-depth research, including more than 55 chilling testimonies of survivors tortured since 2009, when the law criminalizing torture in the Philippines was enacted. Twenty-one of the torture survivors interviewed were children when they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Eight said they were threatened at gunpoint or subjected to a game of “Russian Roulette”.
The report also documents a number of attempted extrajudicial executions, with two survivors telling Amnesty International they were shot and left for dead.
In a particularly horrific incident, a severed head with three gunshot wounds was identified by family as Darius Evangelista, a porter that had been arrested by police in Manila. Fellow detainees said they saw him taken into the private office of a senior police officer with packing tape over his eyes. When Darius was brought out of this office, the detainees heard the officer say “finish him off.” Darius was never seen alive again.
A harrowing video – apparently filmed on a mobile phone – was later broadcast on national and international television. It shows Darius screaming and writhing in pain while a seated man in a white shirt holds a string attached to Darius’ penis and forcefully pulls it several times. Uniformed police officers are visible in the video. Despite the evidence, none of the officers have been convicted. Three of the seven police officers accused of involvement in his torture are still at large.
The police force’s ruthlessness is often matched by a complete lack of attention to detail. Jerryme Corre told Amnesty International that he was rushed by more than ten men with guns in plainclothes, who beat him in the street before taking him back to a police station. There, they beat the soles of his feet with a wooden baton, removed his shorts and used them to suffocate him, ‘waterboarded’ him and electrocuted for hours. During his interrogation, they repeatedly called him by the wrong name. Eventually an official arrived to identify him and told police they had arrested the wrong man, but they charged him anyway.
Stories like Darius’ and Jerryme’s have left public trust in the police at a particularly low ebb. A recent Transparency International survey found that 69 per cent of the Philippines believe the force is corrupt. Yet the government has conspicuously failed to crack down on rogue officers.
Few people dare to complain against the police, knowing they risk retribution, harassment or intimidation from officers themselves or hired thugs.
Rowelito Almeda, aged 45, was detained, beaten and repeatedly electrocuted over a period of five days at a secret detention facility in Laguna, where officers had been using a ‘wheel of torture’ to determine the type of torture they inflicted on their captives. He was rescued by the Commission for Human Rights, but after he spoke to them about his torture, police approached his cousin, offering him money to kill Rowelito.
As a result, many torture victims keep their ordeal secret. Five of the victims Amnesty International interviewed for the report had filed a formal complaint about police treatment then withdrew it because of threats and intimidation.
The vast majority had not dared to complain at all. Others saw complaining as futile – since the establishment of the Philippines’ Commission for Human Rights in 2001, the Commission has received 457 reports of torture or ill-treatment. Not one of those cases have resulted in a conviction.
Those who do complain have to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops where the rules and procedures are unclear and inconsistent. Complaints are often dismissed on a technicality.
Among its detailed recommendations, Amnesty International has proposed untangling this mess by establishing one unified, independent and effective police complaints commission.
“Five years, hundreds of complaints and no convictions later, it’s painfully obvious that the Anti-Torture Act is not being enforced,” Salil Shetty said.
“A concerted effort must be made to wipe out torture and the culture of impunity that perpetuates it. This must start with effective prevention, and where it fails, thorough investigations, robust prosecutions and a streamlined independent complaint mechanism to ensure that no one is above the law.”
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