By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: August 12, 2009
MANILA — Melissa Roxas, a 31-year-old artist and writer from Los Angeles, traveled to the Philippines in 2007 to learn more about the country of her birth.
Ms. Roxas moved to the United States when she was 9 years old, and finding out more about the Philippines had been an obsession for her. “I came to the Philippines to learn more about my roots and heritage,” she told the human rights committee of the Philippine Congress last month.
Soon after arriving, she embarked on an “immersion program” with a left-leaning nongovernmental organization, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), which sent her to impoverished communities in the provinces north of Manila to work on health and sanitation programs. One afternoon in late May, while watching television in a farmer’s home in a village in Tarlac Province, Ms. Roxas and two of her companions were abducted by armed and hooded men who dragged them into a van without a license plate.
For six days, Ms. Roxas says, she was interrogated, drugged, tortured and smothered to near death, with her interrogators trying to force her to admit she was a communist guerrilla. When the interrogators learned that she was an American citizen, she told the committee, the torture lessened. Although she continued to be tortured, her citizenship may have saved Ms. Roxas from death. Her captors later dropped her off at a relative’s house in the capital.
Ms. Roxas’s case was unusual in that she was among the few people who have been freed after being abducted and tortured. It also became highly publicized after it emerged that Ms. Roxas was a U.S. citizen and her lawyers said she would file a suit against the Philippine government in a U.S. court for unlawful kidnapping and assault.
But her case also highlighted something that international and local human rights groups say is all too common in the Philippines: violations of human rights by the military in the name of battling a communist insurgency.
Allegations of human rights violations have hounded the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ever since she came to power in 2001.
According to Karapatan, the largest human rights group in the Philippines, more than 1,000 activists, peasants and civilians have died and thousands more have been tortured or abducted since 2001. Those allegations have been echoed by groups like Human Rights Watch, based in New York, which has accused the government of being engaged in a “dirty war” against leftists.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, among other institutions, investigated several of the cases and found the Philippine military primarily responsible for the actions, attributing them to a counterinsurgency policy called Oplan Bantay Laya, or Operation Freedom Watch, that does not distinguish armed communist combatants from activists who are out in the open.
The United Nations says there has been an improvement in recent years — with a 70 percent decline in the number of killings since February 2007 — partly the result of human rights groups publicizing the problem. But in the first half of this year, 36 activists were killed, according to the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, a program of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
The military has disputed Ms. Roxas’s account, saying that she fabricated the story of her abduction, despite initial findings by the Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional body, that her account was credible. Later, the military went on a counteroffensive, accusing Ms. Roxas of being a member of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that has been waging a 40-year Maoist insurgency, the longest in Asia. Ms. Roxas has denied being a member of the group.
Leila de Lima, the chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, said at a hearing on the case that “freedom from torture is a nonderogable right” — that even if Ms. Roxas were a communist guerrilla, she should not have been tortured. “Even prisoners of war should not be tortured,” Ms. de Lima said.
Apart from the torture and killing linked to the communist insurgency, the Philippines has also come under fire for other human rights violations.
In May, the United Nations Committee Against Torture said that it was “deeply concerned about the numerous, ongoing, credible and consistent allegations, corroborated by a number of Filipino and international sources, of routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody.” The Philippine government told the U.N. committee that “torture or ill-treatment on suspects or detainees is not tolerated or condoned by the Philippine National Police.”
At the same time, the military and its backers have intensified a campaign against groups that the military says are sympathetic to the communists.
Jovito Palparan, a former general who is now a congressman, accused the Commission on Human Rights — whose chairman is appointed by the president and which has been accused by human rights groups in the past of not having been active enough in investigating violations — of backing the leftists.
In remote villages and in the slums of Manila, the military has embarked on a campaign to discredit leftist groups, often gathering residents in communities for viewings of videos where the groups are depicted as communists. The military has also gone into schools to warn students about radical groups out to recruit for the Communist Party.
Lt. Col. Danilo Lucero, the chief of the army’s Civil Military Operations, said in an interview that the military was concentrating on groups that it believed supported the armed New People’s Army.
“They have perfected the art of deception,” Colonel Lucero said. “They have their own political group that basically connects with their armed group.”
But Marie Hilao-Enriquez, secretary general of Karapatan, said the counterinsurgency strategy was “disastrous for human rights.”
“What the military does — labeling every dissenter as a communist — is dangerous,” Ms. Enriquez said. “They are in effect justifying the harassment, torture, abduction and even murder of Filipinos whose only crime was to speak out against the problems of society.”