Congress shines light on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines; A survivor’s tale under oath
In a news week that contained O.J. Simpson’s parole and President Trump’s trade-in for a slicker New York mouthpiece, sandwiched by even more Russia-Trump trauma, it’s not surprising you haven’t heard much about a story that recently took place in Washington, DC.
But it has a large segment of the American Filipino community buzzing.
I’m not even talking about martial law’s extension in the Philippines.
By a wide majority over the weekend, lawmakers in the Philippines voted to grant President Rodriqo Duterte’s request to extend martial law to the end of the year in Mindanao. Fighting terrorism always makes a great excuse to curtail civil liberties.
It’s just Mindanao and not the entire 7,200 island archipelago, so I call it “partial martial.”
Of course, that doesn’t make it right.
It’s still unnecessary government control, and the first sign that the proverbial slippery slope is real. What happens by the end of the year–Terrorism solved? Unlikely. One Philippine house member even suggested martial law be declared throughout the entire country right now. And she wasn’t joking.
More pertinent is that anything the Philippine Army has done during “partial martial” could have been done without it. It hasn’t even helped keep order. If anything, it’s only brought on allegations of human rights abuses by Philippine soldiers on innocents in the region.
It’s also a symbolic reminder that we are not far from that historical memory of the troubled democracy, full martial law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
But that’s not what Filipino Americans are buzzing about.
There is already something akin to martial law in place throughout the entire Philippines.
It’s the fear that comes after more than 7,000 so-called extra-judicial killings have been carried out in Duterte’s fight against “shabu,” a form of crystal meth that is the center of the drug war in the country.
Instead of going after the big-time suppliers, the government has focused on grass-roots activity. But sometimes innocent people have been targeted.
In the barrios, people talk of off-duty police officers who have been behind the killings, egged on by quotas given by superiors, and given extra cash for their zeal by the government.
“The police have masks, they come at night,” said a man I trust who goes to the Philippines often and talks to people who both live in the barrios and work in government.
Normally, I would dismiss it as idle gossip.
But then last week, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress read into the record the statement of one Efren C. Morillo, 29, who lives in San Isidro, Montalban, Rizal, Philippines.
Ellecer Carlos, who testified on behalf of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDefend),the largest collaboration of human rights groups organizing against the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, with Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) of the Commission. (Photo by Eric Lachica)
Morillo is the lead petitioner before the Philippine Supreme Court in the first legal challenge against Duterte’s war on drugs.
His statement translated from Filipino to English is his own chilling account under oath of what happened August 21, 2016 while visiting friends in a Quezon City barrio.
A SURVIVOR’S STORY
“Suddenly five men and two women in civilian clothes arrived,” Morillo said in his statement. “They did not say who they were. They quickly entered the gate and drew guns. They pointed their guns at us and shouted, ‘Don’t run.’”
Morillo and his four friends were tied up while the armed men accused them of dealing in illegal drugs, according to his statement. He then recognized the armed men to be policemen. Later, he was able to identify them. They began to search the house yelling, “Where did you put the Pokemon?!” It apparently was a code name for drugs.
But Morillo said they did not find drugs, only a cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun and some shiny paper. “They insisted that the items prove our involvement in illegal drugs,” Morillo stated. “We fervently denied owning the items and begged them to believe us.”
Morillo and his friends were brought to the back of the house. Three of them were made to kneel on the ground to be shot. But Morillo and his friend, Nonoy, were taken to another room.
“Without warning, [a gunman later identified as Officer Allan Formilleza] raised his gun and fired at me,” said Morillo. “I fell to the ground and felt a burning sensation in my chest, but I did not lose consciousness…Formileza fired another shot at Nonoy, shattering his head…Filled with terror, I closed my eyes and played dead.”
The deception worked. After the officer left the room, Morillo said he was able to crawl out of the house, slide down a ravine, across a stream, and up another side hill to a highway.
But it was just the beginning of a desperate search to find treatment, arguing with on-duty police that he was not a perp, but a victim.
Nine hours later, at midnight, he was able to walk to an emergency room where he was treated while chained by police to his hospital bed.
Officials from the Commission on Human Rights were able to get him released, and then came help from the Center for International Law.
That started his legal journey, which ended up with a filing on Jan. 26 before the Philippine Supreme Court, which has resulted so far in the issuance of a permanent protection order against the policemen involved in the killings.
So Morillo’s alive, but life is not better.
“Despite the prompt action of the Philippine courts, things are worse,” Morillo said in his statement. “Our lives are much harder now. My parents were forced to sell our house to pay for my bail and medical bills…Because I remain under tight custody and protection due to the danger to my life, I am unable to work and provide for my family.”
“Moreover, Operation Plan Tokhang (Duterte’s drug war) after a brief suspension…has been brought back. It continues to claim thousands of lives,” Morillo added. “I survived, but thousands did not. I owe it to them to speak out and join the quest for full justice for all the victims of the killings.”
Morillo’s saga was big news in the Philippines in January when it happened. But it’s finally made its way to the U.S. and is on the record in Congress. Translated into English, it’s a survivor’s account that puts into context the rising number of extrajudicial killings.
One is too many.
And they’re still happening.
A CONGRESSMAN’S OUTRAGE
“We should be clear what an extrajudicial killing or execution is: it is the purposeful killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding, “ said Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. “No arrest. No charges. No warrant. No trial. No judge. No jury. Simply murder.”
Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) (Photo by Eric Lachica)
That this involves a treaty ally and the largest recipient of U.S. assistance in East Asia is also troubling. ”Let me be clear: The U.S. government cannot afford any degree of complicity with the kinds of human rights violations that are occurring,” said McGovern.
The Philippines has revised the numbers in the last year to show killings are down, but cases under investigation are up.
But McGovern is asking that the Philippines allow for “credible independent investigations,” including approving an October request by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for a site visit as a “good faith step forward.”
Until then, McGovern sent a blistering message to the Philippine leader, who recently was featured in a leaked exchange with President Trump, where Trump praised Duterte’s “War on Drugs” and talked about a future invitation to the White House.
That doesn’t sit well with McGovern.
“President Duterte by all accounts seems not to have a high regard for human rights,” McGovern said from prepared remarks. “I think it is important for members of Congress in a bipartisan way to make our concerns known loudly and clearly. And I certainly believe very strongly that a man with the human rights record of Mr. Duterte should not be invited to the White House. If he comes, I will lead the protest.”
McGovern closed his remarks by entering Morillo’s statement into the record. You can read it in full here.
In the ‘80s, this would have brought out loud demonstrations in at least the large Filipino communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But make no mistake: what’s going on in the Philippines is real, and it is not good.
Congress has many other annoyances in its path these days. It’s about time they addressed this one.