Davao Extrajudicial Killings Hearing Planned

But local priest say it won’t achieve much as witnesses will be too scared to testify.

Davao Extrajudicial Killings Hearing Planned

But local priest say it won’t achieve much as witnesses will be too scared to testify.

A prominent rights campaigner has cast doubt over the merits of an upcoming public hearing on continuing extrajudicial killings in Davao City

The two-day event, which begins on March 30, is being planned by the independent body the Commission on Human Rights, CHR, to examine the high numbers of apparent summary killings in the city.

Father Amado Picardal, a Catholic priest and local human rights advocate, said, “I am glad the CHR is finally concerned about these killings, but I do not believe that a public hearing will accomplish anything. Witnesses are afraid to testify.

“A special independent commission to investigate these killings formed by [President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo] in coordination with the CHR and civil society [would probably be] more effective.”

The city’s highly outspoken mayor Rodrigo Duterte has publicly welcomed the event. Duterte, who has repeatedly gone on record as saying Davao is not a safe place for criminals, has consistently denied the authorities have any link to the killings.

Davao has been known as the murder capital of the Philippines since the 1980s, when rebel group the New People’s Army, NPA – the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines – waged war on the city’s authorities.

At that time, two anti-communist groups – the Alsa Masa and the Nagkahiusang Katawhan Alang sa Kalinaw – emerged in Davao and surrounding Davao del Sur province to fight the NPA.

Both the NPA and the aforementioned groups were accused of very serious and systematic human rights abuses, including summary killings.

Today, some 813 people are said to have been summarily executed by one vigilante group, the so-called Davao Death Squad, DDS, since 1998, according to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. In January 2009 alone, 33 people are believed to have fallen victim to the group.

Like Duterte, the city’s police chief, Senior Superintendent Ramon Apolinario, has consistently rejected all claims that death squads operate in the city, and has called on those with any evidence to come forward.

The police and the mayor blame gang and drug wars for the large number of killings. Police records say there were 221 in the city between January and October 2008.

As part of its ongoing training on covering extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project recently organised a workshop in Davao for 60 local journalists, in an effort to help them to better investigate and follow-up cases of unexplained killings.

The international community has been concerned about the killings for some time. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston briefly visited Davao in February 2007 to look into the killings.

“Duterte dominates the city so thoroughly as to stamp out whole genres of crime, yet he remains powerless in the face of hundreds of murders committed by men without masks in view of witnesses,” noted Alston in a 66-page report, compiled after his visit.

Concern over the continuing spate of unexplained killings in the city has also been expressed by the chairman of the UK Parliamentary Committee on the Philippines. Mark Pritchard MP told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project that he raised the issue in a meeting with Duterte during a visit to Davao late last year.

CHR chair Leila De Lima, who is organising the Davao public hearing, said she is alarmed at the psychological impact the killings are having on the local community.

“The killings in Davao have reached a glaring and alarming proportion,” De Lima told reporters in Cebu City last month. “It has an effect on the consciousness of people in Davao.

“Before, [the killers] used to be hooded but now, they’re doing it in broad daylight, and they’re using knives and walking calmly away.”

The CHR is hoping to encourage witnesses of extrajudicial killings to speak at the public hearing – but many observers are not hopeful this will happen.

But De Lima is insistent that the CHR has to try. Something, she says, has to be done.

She questioned the response and position of the authorities. “How can something as systematic and as glaring happen without the consent of powerful people?” she asked.

Picardal argued that the killings in Davao were part of a well-organised campaign against suspected criminals.

“These killings can never be morally justified – you cannot run after criminals using criminal means. These killings are murder. The due process of law and the presumption of innocence cannot be disregarded,” he said.

But Picardal admitted that whoever is responsible enjoys the support of many, who are glad to see the streets safer as a result.

A taxi driver, who preferred not to be named, expressed a typical view, “Yes, the killings help keep me safe because petty crimes have been minimised. People are scared to commit crime.”

Kelly Delgado, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan-Southern Mindanao, said that the CHR should also pay attention to victims of apparent summary executions in Davao del Sur and Compostela Valley.

The unresolved killings of Bayan Muna (People First) organisers and a peasant activist in the two provinces late last year raised questions as to whether they were related to the Philippine military's counter-insurgency programme.

Aurelia Qualbar, the widow of Bayan Muna worker Danilo Qualbar, said her husband had been pointed out by two army officers a week before he was gunned down on his way home to Compostela town in the Davao region last November.

The woman said she believed her husband's death was directly related to a local radio report she heard announcing the army was launching “clean-up operations” after a clash in October 2008 between the military and the NPA in a nearby town.

The military has denied any involvement in extra-judicial killings.

Delgado said that both the killings of suspected criminals in Davao city and of political activists in the surrounding area merited a bigger official investigation.

The author is a journalist based in Davao city and one of the founders of AKP Images, an independent photo agency.
Support our journalists