http://www.bworldonline.com/BW081809/content.php?id=073

18 August 2009

A BICAMERAL body yesterday endorsed for ratification a bill that seeks to penalize torture, and in the process strengthening the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to curb such practices.

Police officers attend a bicameral meeting on the Anti-Torture Bill at the Senate in Pasay City . The bill was approved yesterday for ratification in both Houses of Congress. — Photo By Jonathan L. Cellona “The respective House and Senate panels have agreed to a reconciled version of the Anti-Torture Bill,” Senator Francis Joseph G. Escudero, chairman of the committee on justice and human rights, told reporters after the meeting..

He added the bill is expected to be ratified next week.

Aside from increasing the CHR’s budget, Mr. Escudero said the reconciled version also penalizes the superiors of state agents who commit torture as well as those caught maintaining “secret detention places” of torture.

The bill outlines penalties ranging from a minimum of six months to a maximum of 12 years depending on the gravity of the offense. Coverage extends to physical, mental, psychological, and drug abuse.

Mr. Escudero said “this bill will discourage those who are planning to commit acts of torture,” pointing to the slew of preventive and punishment provisions.

“We have agreed to increase the funding allotted to the [CHR] next year so they could better perform their duties in enforcing anti-torture laws.”

The P5-million additional outlay, Mr. Escudero said, would be included in discussions on the 2010 budget.

Aside from increased funding for the CHR, the approval bill also seeks encourage the police and military to monitor their ranks against abuses.

“Part of the bill discusses command responsibility wherein even if you did not commit the torture act, but you were the superior officer of an agent who committed one, then you also have a liability, although [to a lesser extent],” Mr. Escudero said.

Allegations

The Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police have suffered from allegations of turning a blind eye on human rights concerns, including alleged torture perpetrated against civilians and rebels.

One recent case is the allegation of Filipino-American activist Melissa C. Roxas that she was abducted in Tarlac province north of Metro Manila last May and was subjected to torture. The CHR has an ongoing investigation on the matter.

But apart from state agents, private individuals will also be covered by the bill, Mr. Escudero said. “We have agreed on the fact that when torture is performed by a private individual, the penalty applicable under the revised penal code will be the highest.”

“Another new provision under this bill is the illegality of maintaining of so-called ’secret detention places.’ These are different from safe houses for witnesses under the witness protection program.”

All government agencies will be required to pass a list of designated detention centers to CHR, said Mr. Escudero, including a monthly update on the creation of new facilities. — Michael Paolo T. Jamias
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

AHRC-STM-172-2009

18 August 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: Torture law nearing approval is an obligation long overdue

While the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) welcomes the development that the proposed law on torture is nearing its approval following the bicameral session of the Senate and the House of Representatives it must also be said that they, the lawmakers, have for over two decades frustrated numerous torture victims in their attempts to obtain legal redress by delaying it.

Under the Philippine’s legislative system, before a final draft of the law is approved, a bicameral session is held between the two chambers as each of them would always have their own version of any proposed law. This stage is already done and the local NGOs described the final version as “robust in substance”. Both chambers, however, would have to ratify the final version, which they have yet to do, before it is submitted to the President for her signature.

Therefore, unless the two chambers themselves deliberately delay and fail to ratify the final version; or, the President, for some reason, exercises her power of veto, it is likely that the law on torture will be enacted. However, there is no escaping the failure of the country’s lawmakers over a period of two decades to ratify this law despite the fact that freedom from torture itself is a Constitutional right. This is something they should have done a long time ago. To have this law passed deserves recognition, but its delay must also be mourned.

The Filipino people have meagre reason to be elated by this development. In fact, the lawmakers could also be held at fault for the incarceration of the hundreds, if not thousands of torture victims who had been deprived of remedies. They are persons who have been convicted or held for trial over charges taken by way of torture all over their country during the past two decades. Some of them, like the Abadilla Five have since been fighting for their innocence for an exceptional 13 years.

It is these lawmakers, many of whom are detached from absorbing the real needs of their constituents that should realise that it is they who owe a lot to their constituents and not the other way around. Why, therefore, should they be thanked now for something that they should have done years ago? Should this law finally be passed it is something that is expected from them. Rather than expect praise they should be explaining to the people they supposedly represent why it has taken them so long.

Unfortunately the enactment of a law does not guarantee the end of the police and the military’s practice of torture in investigating cases. The Philippines has had the reputation of ratifying international human rights instruments, enacting good domestic laws, but are largely poor in implementing them which often results in the dissatisfaction of the victims. Any law would only have meaning if victims have confidence, after being satisfied of the legal proceedings in seeking remedies they sought, that it would produce something satisfactory. It is this that the meaning of any law is built upon. But even the government’s system of criminal justice has yet to build on this very notion.

Take the example of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), a law mandating the distribution of farm land to landless tenants. This law has not satisfied the beneficiaries. Farmers seeking ownership to lands are killed. The landed elite, some of whom are sitting in Congress as lawmakers, have been able to frustrate the implementation of the land reform law ensuring that huge tracts of farm lands remain the property of wealthy landlords.

Therefore, the Filipino people will just have to wait and see whether or not the implementation of this domestic law on torture, once enacted, would effectively address the problem of impunity and the lack of remedies for torture victims. Although this is remarkable, as it now legally binds the State to protecting this right, it is also premature to presume that this piece of legislation would eradicate the endemic and systematic practice of torture, which is perceived as an indispensable means to investigate cases. # # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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Asian Human Rights Commission
19/F, Go-Up Commercial Building,
998 Canton Road, Kowloon, Hongkong S.A.R.
Tel: +(852) – 2698-6339 Fax: +(852) – 2698-6367