By Mark Dearn
7 January 2012
MANILA – The recent filing of kidnapping and illegal detention charges against prominent retired Philippine general Jovito Palparan has restored faith in President Benigno Aquino’s promised reform agenda and given cheer to the country’s many human-rights campaigners.
Palparan, a figure intimately tied to the rash of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances recorded during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency, has disappeared since the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued charges against him and three other soldiers for kidnapping two University of the Philippines students and a peasant farmer in June 2006.
After being stopped while trying to board a plane leaving the country – as was Arroyo in November – Palparan has gone into hiding with a 500,000 pesos (US$11,420) reward on his head. He has surfaced only through comments criticizing Justice Secretary Leila De Lima and a request that his arrest warrant and hold departure order be recalled while the DOJ reinvestigates the case.
The military’s clear involvement and lack of investigative progress in the abduction of Karen Empeno, Sherlyn Cadapan and Manuel Merino is emblematic of the Philippines poor human-rights situation. Although the manhunt for, and charges against, Palparan is a clear marker of intent for the Aquino administration, it is too early to be considered a watershed reform moment.
There are reasons for pessimism. The Philippine legal process is renowned for its sluggishness and failure to achieve convictions against politically powerful suspects; the net is yet to be cast beyond Palparan towards his political backers; and the dismissal of charges including rape, serious physical injury and maltreatment of prisoners reflects a reform approach characterised by giving with one hand while taking away with the other.
Before winning office in June 2010, Aquino promised to achieve justice for various human rights violations and to dismantle the country’s many heavily armed private armies. Drawing on the emotional pull of being the son of an assassinated politician father, Aquino has attempted to draw a reformist line between his and Arroyo’s administrations.
Under Arroyo, human rights violations were endemic, with perpetrators ranging from the military, to private armies, to “death squads” commanded by provincial rulers whom she courted to win elections and fight insurgencies. Victims included political rivals, insurgents, peaceful activists, journalists and petty criminals.
The killing of 58 people in Maguindanao in 2009 was a final, ignominious indictment for an administration under which the Philippines ranked alongside Colombia and Iraq for the killing with impunity of trade union activists and journalists.
Until charges were filed against Palparan, Aquino’s reforms were widely viewed as anaemic and in places politically motivated. Until now, military figures had remained untouchable, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch arguing that the military could still kill and “disappear” people “with little regard for the consequences” under Aquino’s watch.
Targeting Palparan is a key symbolic moment in a country where no senior military officer has been convicted in the past decade. The case of the “Morong 43”, a group of health workers detained on charges of cooperating with the rebel New People’s Army and released by Aquino in December 2010, never saw a proper investigation of the group’s mistreatment allegations at the hands of the military under anti-torture legislation that was amended on the same day of their release.
Aquino will seen as taking similar half-measures if Palparan escapes the other serious charges lodged against him or if he is convicted in isolation from his politically powerful patrons.
Palparan quickly cemented a reputation for ruthlessness against communist and secessionist insurgents. Four months after entering active service with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), he won his first medal in 1974 for repelling a Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) attack on a base in Sulu. He was reported at the time to have admitted that children were among the combatants, brushing off their deaths as those of “future enemies”.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Palparan twice commanded the AFP’s 24th Infantry Battalion in Central Luzon and the Cordillera where he confronted the still active communist New People’s Army. On both occasions, human-rights groups implicated Palparan in cases of extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture.
In 2001, the year Arroyo became president, Palparan was deployed to the 204th Infantry Battalion in Oriental Mindoro, where he won the moniker “the butcher of Mindoro”. He left behind a legacy of abuse, with victims of human-rights violations recorded at more than 1,000 people.
Yet Palparan rose rapidly under Arroyo, who praised him as a relentless freedom fighter and promoted him from colonel to brigadier-general, major-general, and AFP chief of staff upon his return from Iraq, where he was commander of the Philippine Humanitarian Contingent. Palparan returned to the field in 2005, briefly leading the 8th Infantry Division in Samar, Eastern Visayas.
Alleged victims of military assassination included a priest, a youth organizer and a lawyer, with one civil society group estimating some 500 human-rights violations in his area. At the time, Palparan won another nickname, “the executioner of Samar”, among human rights activists and some media commentators.
It is one of his final appointments that has returned to haunt him. In 2006, he was appointed commander of the AFP’s 7th Infantry Division in Fort Magsaysay, Central Luzon. Months before his appointment as deputy national security advisor and a foray into anti-communist politics, Empeno, Cadapan and Merino were kidnapped.
Empeno and Cadapan, who were researching rural poverty for Empeno’s degree thesis, were snatched from their rented house in Bulucan, along with local farmer Manuel Merino, who was apprehended after responding to their cries for help.
Key to the case against Palparan will be the testimony of Raymond Manalo, a farmer held at the base who later escaped. Manalo claims he saw the torture of Cadapan, heard the torture of Empeno, and saw Merino set on fire by AFP soldiers. Crucially, Manalo’s testimony includes being summoned and threatened by Palparan.
In 2007, Palparan gave a seemingly revealing interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation where he said he “didn’t think” Cadapan and Empeno were held at the fort. He admitted in the same press interview that in relation to killings and disappearances generally that he “might have encouraged or inspired people to take the law into their hands”.
Palparan has been associated with and avoided command responsibility before. The Arroyo-established Melo Commission’s 2007 report on disappearances and extrajudicial killings – which Arroyo tried to keep secret – disavowed any “national policy” and instead recommended command responsibility charges against Palparan, who the report accused of “as responsible for an undetermined number of killings, by allowing, tolerating and even encouraging the killings”.
The charges were never adopted and Palparan was later given the administration’s blessing to run for political office after his retirement from the armed forces in 2006. The report was widely seen as a convenient tool for the exonerated Arroyo, who used it as evidence of her commitment to human rights before a concerned international community.
Aquino’s reforms, however, will need to reach much deeper. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda last month described Palparan as “brazen” and “lavishly coddled by the former administration”. Palparan’s charges stipulate that he acted outside of his office as a “private person”. Campaign groups will likely demand to know how many of Palparan’s civilian superiors in Malacanang knew of or directed his controversial activities and whether he was indeed acting as a “private person”.
Detlev Mehlis, the German lawyer appointed to oversee the now concluded European Union-Philippines Justice Support Programme (EPJUST), argues that the criminal justice system “desperately needs reform” to secure more human-rights convictions. Mehlis, who spent 18 months in the country, said reform “requires a much bigger effort and more determination than what I saw during EPJUST’s time”.
If Palparan becomes a lone scapegoat for a legacy of widespread human-rights abuses, a victory for reformists risks being seen as more symbolic than substantial in the fight against impunity. Engaged judicial reform, the restoration of civilian control over the military, and the pursuit of Palparan’s political backers will reveal the true extent of the Aquino government’s commitment to meaningful reform.
Mark Dearn is based in Manila. He has written for openDemocracy, Africa-Asia Confidential and the Royal African Society, among others, and is a former chair of Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines, UK.