PHILIPPINES: Murder is murder, not a ‘legitimate encounter’
December 21, 2012
A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission
On December 19, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) was reported to have concluded after over two years of investigation that the killing of botanist Leonard Co and his two assistants in Leyte in November 2010 “was due to the military’s failure to distinguish civilians from combatants.” The CHR has submitted its report to the Department of Justice (DoJ) but did not make recommendations on as to what criminal charges should be filed against the soldiers involved in the operation and killings. The CHR has left it to the DoJ to “determine what charges will be filed.”
The AHRC welcomes the CHR’s report though it is of the opinion that it could have been resolved more promptly. The AHRC feels that the publication of the report is long overdue and rejects the CHR’s inability to conclude what charges should be filed against the soldiers. Killings on the pretext of ‘legitimate encounter’ are very common in remote areas when soldiers conduct military operations and the justification of killings as ‘legitimate encounters’ has been the convenient excuse used by the soldiers and the police to escape criminal liability.
The AHRC strongly believes that the killing of Leonardo Co and his two assistants was not due to the “military’s failure to distinguish civilians from combatants,” but rather a ‘premeditated murder’. This judgement is based on the numerous cases of killings on the pretext of ‘legitimate encounter’ which were later found to be murders. Unless the CHR categorically concludes and recommends to the DoJ to prosecute the soldiers for murder, the soldiers and the policemen will continue to use ‘legitimate encounter’ as the justification for their ‘widespread and systematic’ killing of civilians.
Operations conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), including the operation that killed Leonardo Co and his aides, in fighting against the communist and the separatist insurgencies are thoroughly planned. The soldiers have deeply embedded intelligence networks in these communities and are fully aware about who and what is going on. In fact, it is very common for the soldiers and the police to keep records of people who live in the villages, those who come and go because most of these villages are under curfew and hamletting, which is the collection of villages under military control.
In view of this to claim that these soldiers would go on military operations proceeding to areas under their complete control not knowing who the people in the communities are is to deny reality. In fact, to know or not whether the victims were civilians is irrelevant in Co’s case. Ms. Loretta Rosales, chairperson of the CHR, herself has said: “The truth is, there was no legitimate encounter because it was one-sided, there was no exchange of fire.”
Apart from the killing of Co and his aides, local human rights organisations have since documented numerous cases of killings on the pretext of ‘legitimate encounter.” Of late is the massacre of the Capion family on October 18 this year in Tampakan, South Cotabato . In our 2012 Human Rights report (p. 10) we have concluded that;
“To justify civilian deaths in massacres as ‘legitimate encounter’ is common practice by soldiers. They are able to escape scrutiny because of practical difficulty for the police to effectively and impartially investigate these cases in their remote sites of occurrence. Before the Ombudsman resolved to indict soldiers for the death of Bacar Japalali and his pregnant wife Carmen in September 2004, the deaths were also justified as a ‘legitimate encounter’. The Ombudsman, however, rejected the soldiers’ claim, because the bodies of the couple were still inside the mosquito net when found. The soldiers also portrayed the couple as members of a Muslim rebel group in an attempt to discredit them and to escape criminal liability. However, investigation by the prosecutors and the police revealed the couple had nothing to do with armed rebellion.
The AHRC strongly recommends to the CHR and the DoJ to prosecute soldiers and policemen, not only in Co’s case, but in many other cases where the killings of civilians have been justified as a ‘legitimate encounter’ on charges of murder. It is the utmost responsibility of the CHR and the DoJ to make it clear to the authorities and the public that murder is murder, not ‘legitimate encounter’. It must be made clear to the military and the police establishments that they will be held accountable for murder in order to end this practice.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.