FEBRUARY 27, 2007 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - In response to criticisms that she is not doing enough to address the issue of extrajudicial killings of activists and journalists, President Arroyo said she has taken five steps to address the problem.

"The government is more than sincere in its efforts to resolve these killings, we have taken immediate concrete steps," the President said.

The Philippines has been drawing international criticism after a United Nations investigator and a local fact-finding body implicated top military commanders in a wave of political assassinations.

Even the US, the country’s main defense ally, has called on Malacañang to put an end to the killings.

"Human rights are critical to every country that is a democracy and I think the important thing right now is the Philippine government has put together some very good ideas. Let’s get them into action," US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said.

Mrs. Arroyo tasked Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol to monitor the progress of the directives she issued last Jan. 31. The directives are based on the recommendations of the Melo Commission, an investigative body headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo.

In response to the commission’s recommendation to enhance the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has liberalized admission requirements, particularly when the threat level against witnesses is high.

While the DOJ is evaluating the cases of the witnesses for admission to the program, regional state prosecutors were authorized to grant provisional coverage to high-risk witnesses under threat.

Gonzalez has directed all WPP implementers and personnel, particularly the regional state prosecutors as well as city and provincial prosecutors, to adopt a proactive stance in seeking out bona fide witnesses in cases involving political killings, murders of journalists and human rights violations.

The DOJ has also organized a team of prosecutors to oversee, coordinate and follow all of the cases involving witnesses at high risk to pave the way for the prosecution of cases.

In order to beef up the investigation of cases involving extrajudicial killings, the President approved the release of P25 million to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

Mrs. Arroyo said she wanted the CHR to delve deeper into the matter of extrajudicial killings and that additional funds would help the commission fulfill its mandate, which includes monitoring, investigating, education and training.

Responding to the President’s directive for the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to come up with an updated document on command responsibility, AFP chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. issued last Feb. 4 a memorandum ordering strict adherence to the doctrine of command responsibility.

The issue of command responsibility was one of the matters emphasized by the Melo Commission, which pointed out the need to ensure that all military officers understand and correctly implement this doctrine.

In defining the principle of command responsibility, the courts noted that it refers to the "accountability or responsibility or answerability of the commander of a military force or unit for the acts of his men, inclusive of the authority to order, to direct, to prevent or control the acts of his men."

The Supreme Court, upon Mrs. Arroyo’s request, will soon establish special courts to handle the cases of extrajudicial killings, Chief Justice Reynato Puno said earlier this month.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has sought technical assistance from the European Union for the investigation of extrajudicial killings.

Last Feb. 13, the Melo Commission briefed members of the diplomatic corps so they can understand the investigative need.

Rebel ‘judges’ surface

At a press briefing held at Camp Aguinaldo yesterday, three self-confessed members of the communist New People’s Army surfaced to bolster the military’s contention that the NPA is directly involved in the spate of extrajudicial killings.

Ruel Llante, Eufenio Orpinada and Jose Orpinada – who left the communist movement last November – claimed that while they were still active members of the NPA’s local kangaroo court in their village in San Narciso, Quezon province, their "role then was to review and endorse our findings for enforcement or execution to the armed partisan group."

Also present at yesterday’s briefing were former NPA vice squad leader Medwin Hiwatig and former armed NPA regulars Dennis and Grace.

Grace claimed she surrendered in November 2002, tired of fighting the government. She said what forced her to come out and denounce the extrajudicial killings by the NPA was the abduction of her father, Romulo de Villa, in February 2005.

De Villa – a sickly 56-year-old farmer who is an active supporter of the rebel movement in the town of Mulanay, Quezon – was later executed by his abductors and buried in an unmarked grave inside the town’s public cemetery.

Hiwatig said De Villa’s abduction was sanctioned by the NPA leadership, who suspected he was a government spy. He admitted he was among those who abducted De Villa, who was hit on the head and stabbed to death.

AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said the "existence of NPA kangaroo courts in the Bondoc peninsula" proves the military’s claims that the NPA are mainly responsible for the extrajudicial killings, "not only of leftist and militant personalities, but also of persons perceived to be counter-revolutionaries."

Politics can kill

A visiting American journalist said yesterday the spate of media killings in the Philippines is caused by the victims’ involvement in partisan politics.

James Dichenson, a former reporter and columnist of The Washington Post, said he was informed that Filipino journalists who write or broadcast in favor of a particular politician or party are being assassinated by the enemies of that politician or party.

He said media killings do not happen in the United States because American journalists are guided by the journalist’s code of ethics.

"The reason why we don’t have that (media killings) is that one of the things that evolve in American journalism is the idea of a non-partisan, of trying to be fair and unbiased and not being spokesperson of any politician or any party," he said at the weekly Kapihan sa Manila Hotel forum.

Dichenson said the media should also focus on issues and not personalities.

He said the judicial system in the country should also play its role in imposing penalties against abusive journalists.

"To diminish the assassination of the journalists require the efforts of the public, the government, the judiciary and the choices of issues among media people," he said.

As a political reporter for over 30 years, he said he works hard not to allow opinions to affect his writings.

Dichenson said his duty is to explain the political process so that people will be informed, adding that journalists could be non-partisan if they work at it.

"That’s the basis of the journalistic ethics," he said.

Dichenson arrived in the Philippines for the first time to give talks at some media gatherings as well as to observe the elections in the country.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Francis Escudero said yesterday that Mrs. Arroyo bears ultimate responsibility for the hundreds of political and extrajudicial killings in the country.

"Sure, a group in the military is to blame, as the Melo Commission has concluded, but the buck stops in Mrs. Arroyo’s office," he said.

Escudero, a senatorial candidate of the Genuine Opposition, said had the President ordered an honest-to-goodness investigation into these killings in the early days of her presidency and punished those behind them, "these murders would have stopped." – With Helen Flores, Michael Punongbayan, Jaime Laude, Jess Diaz

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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