by Che delos Reyes
Jessa de los Santos recounts how her 16-year old son was abused by soldiers
A LOCAL human-rights group says that despite the promise of a ‘people- and human rights-centered’ counter-insurgency program by President Benigno S. Aquino III, an increasing number of children are becoming victims of human-rights violations as a result of intensive military operations in many rural communities.
According to Karapatan, such violations, which include rape, illegal arrest and detention, torture, and killings, are being committed by elements of the military under Oplan Bayanihan, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Internal Peace and Security Plan.
Karapatan’s member organization Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC) tracked a rising number of child rights violations since Aquino assumed the presidency in July 2010. These include five cases of killings, 11 cases of illegal arrest and detention, five cases of torture, and three cases of rape of children or those below 18 years of age.
In a press conference held last Saturday, Karapatan Chairperson Marie Hilao-Enriquez also said that barely a fortnight ago, on Mar. 23, two teenage boys – both of them minors — were arrested, physically abused, and detained by soldiers in Quezon province. The military branded the boys as child soldiers of the New People’s Army (NPA), Enriquez said.
CRC and Karapatan are calling for the immediate pull out of military troops from rural communities. According to Enriquez, intensive military operations at the very least force children and their families to evacuate their communities, particularly in the mineral-rich areas of Agusan, Surigao, Compostela, and Bukidnon in Mindanao. This disrupts the children’s schooling and deprives them of the right to education. It also subjects them to trauma, she said.
“Oplan Bayanihan is really no different from former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya as far as spreading terror and violating human rights in rural communities are concerned,” Enriquez said.
Armed Forces Spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos, however, challenged human-rights organizations to file criminal charges against soldiers accused of rights violations.
He also insisted that military officials do not tolerate rights violations, especially against minors, and that mechanisms have already been put into place to ensure accountability by erring military personnel and commanding officers who may try to protect them.
“What violations are they talking about?” Burgos asked, referring to the allegations raised by groups like Kaparatan and CRC. “What data do they have? Our human-rights office is closely in touch with the progressive groups and the Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International. ”
“In our organization we do not tolerate abuses of soldiers particularly when it comes to minors,” Burgos said. “We have what is called ‘command responsibility,’ our commanders are responsible for the behavior of military personnel, there are offenses of omission and offenses of commission.”
CRC Executive Director Jacquiline Ruiz, though, said that by all indications, Karapatan’s figures are merely “very conservative estimates.” She said that whenever her group goes to a community to respond to a reported case of child-rights violation, her group would discover many other similar unreported cases in the area. Apparently, many victims’ families fear retaliation by the military, she said.
One of the few who have dared come forward, however, is Jessa de los Santos. Her son, 17-year-old Reynaldo, was one of the two boys arrested in Quezon last Mar. 23. In tears at the Saturday press conference, she recounted how Reynaldo and his companion, Rey Rodrigo, were arrested by armed men, who later introduced themselves as members of the 74th Infantry Battalion based in Sitio Malamig, Sto. Niño, Quezon. It later turned out that the boys happened to walk into an area where an encounter between soldiers and members of the NPA had just happened.
De los Santos vehemently denied that the boys are NPA guerrillas. “They were just looking for work in coconut farms in the area to help our families,” she said. They are very hardworking children.”
De los Santos said that she, along with her husband and Vicenta Rodrigo, Rey’s mother, later saw the boys aboard a truck in the military headquarters in Sitio Malamig. She said that her heart broke when she saw that both boys were blindfolded and appeared to have suffered from physical abuse in the hands of the soldiers.
Another week would pass before they would see the boys again, this time behind bars in Quezon Provincial Jail. By then, the boys had been slapped with multiple charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and murder. But CRC’s Ruiz said that it is still unclear just who exactly the boys were supposed to have killed.
Ruiz said that it is not entirely inconceivable for the military to charge the children with rebellion as well, since they had already labeled the boys as members of the NPA. And that, Ruiz said, would be a cause for even more alarm as it would place the boys’ case beyond the scope of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare law (Republic Act 9344). The law exempts children below 18 years from criminal liability and from detention in jail.
Cases such as those of Rey and Reynaldo’s, however, are becoming more and more commonplace throughout the country, according to Ruiz. For the first quarter of 2012 alone, Karapatan reported eight children arbitrarily arrested or detained. And out of the nine victims of extra-judicial killings in the same period, four were children killed by indiscriminate firing in their communities.
A factor common to all the victims is that they belong to poor families in marginalized sectors. Most of them are children of farmers or belong to indigenous groups, according to Enriquez.
Ruiz also raised the alarm over the increasing number of rape and sexual harassment cases among female minors in communities with strong military presence, like what happened to Katrina and Isabel, both 16-year-old high school students in Mankayan, Benguet. In November 2011 and February 2012 respectively, the two girls were allegedly enticed and later sexually abused by Army Captain Danilo Lalin of the 86th Infantry Division based in Mankayan town.
Lalin has since been relieved from his post. But Ruiz thinks the AFP should have pressed criminal charges against him.
The AFP, meanwhile, seems to be waiting for complainants to file lawsuits. AFP spokesperson Burgos said that while the AFO has received reports of complaints from human-rights organizations like Karapatan, these groups have yet to file any case against the erring personnel.
He cited the case of Lalin, who is now undergoing investigation by the military for his alleged abuse of Katrina and Isabel. Yet, Burgos said, the AFP has not yet heard if charges have been filed by any complainant.
As for the allegation that the military had illegally detained two teenagers in Quezon for their supposed membership in the NPA, Burgos said that if there was any such illegal detention committed, then the victims should have filed criminal charges in court instead of appearing before the media over the weekend.
“If a case is filed, we will be very cooperative and open to investigation.” Burgos said. “We will not tolerate abuses. If there’s a complaint, the commanding officer should act right away.”
“The problem with them (rights groups) is that all they know is media,” he said. “They should file lawsuits.”
Burgos said the military has strengthened internal mechanisms for the protection of human rights. He pointed to the creation of an AFP human-rights office under Col. Domingo Tutaan that is tasked with investigating charges of rights abuses, as well as of initiating information and education campaigns among military personnel on the importance of human rights.
Karapatan’s Enriquez did say that the families of Rey and Reynaldo have not pressed charges yet because they do not have the resources and the legal know-how to do so. Ruiz for her part said that CRC’s lawyer would be going to Quezon Provincial Jail to be clear on all the murky details about the boys’ case so that the proper legal remedy could be sought.