Although symbolic and perhaps without any authority to enforce its verdict, the International People’s Tribunal has sent a powerful message to Macapagal-Arroyo and other perpetrators of human rights violations: You cannot forever silence truth and justice because the people’s justice will come after you in the final reckoning.
By Bobby Tuazon
Watching from the sidelines the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) held in Quezon City Aug. 19, one would have mistook it for the proverbial “kangaroo court” usually associated with courts that render swift justice without the defendant being accorded due process and then hauled hastily into a chamber to meet his executioner. But when a juror read the verdict of guilty on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for gross human rights violations, the thousand-audience – many of them farmers and indigenous peoples from the provinces gripped by militarization and a “reign of terror” – instantaneously stood up and applauded with shouts of jubilation and tears, relieved that finally justice had been done.
Here was a tribunal that many defense lawyers and even well-meaning judges would find extraordinary – extraordinary that it ever happened, and for the volumes of documentation, pieces of material evidence and attestations presented; for the witnesses and victims’ relatives testifying without fear and without the condescending attitude of a typical, smug and corrupt judge to a poor witness; the sheer determination of the prosecutors to argue their case; and the jurors’ collective sense of rendering justice no matter who gets hurt including the powerful president of a republic.
If you’re looking for the “court of last resort” for people who have long been denied justice the IPT absolutely served that purpose.
The seven-hour International People’s Court in Defense of a People Fighting Repression was convened at the Film Institute of the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman and was headed by a Presidium of Judges: Hon. Lennox Hinds, law professor at the prestigious Rutdgers University in New Jersey, USA and vice chair of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL); Hon. Hakan Karakus, a Turkish lawyer and president of the International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL); and Hon. Irene Fernandez of Malaysia, founder and director of Tenaganita (women’s force) and nominee to the Nobel Peace Prize. Hinds, an African-American, also served as lawyer for Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned by white racists for 20 years before he became independent South Africa’s first president and himself would receive a Nobel Prize.
The Court also had a 12-member College of Jurors composed of lawyers, foreign doctors, educators, human rights defenders and activists from about eight countries.* United Nations Judge ad Litem Romeo T. Capulong led the panel of prosecutors who included lawyers Antonio Azarcon, Fatima R. Balbin, Alfonso Cinco IV, Neri J. Colmenares, Nasser Marohomsalic, Beverly Musni, Rachel F. Pastores and Ameh B. Sato. Tribunal clerks were Atty. Edre Olalia, also from the IAPL, and Jobert Pahilga.
A total of 4,207 cases of human rights violations allegedly committed by the Arroyo administration from January 2001 to June 2005 were presented to the tribunal. The cases, according to the human rights alliance Karapatan, affected 232,796 individuals, 24,299 families and 237 communities. At least 400 were victims of summary execution; 110 were victims of forced disappearances.
Twenty of those killed were human rights volunteers making the country as the most dangerous place not only for journalists but also probably for rights watchdogs.
The cases range from extra-judicial killings or summary executions; assassinations, massacre, disappearances and torture; forced evacuation, looting, arson and displacement; illegal arrest and detention; and other violations constituting crimes against humanity.
Used in international law, “crimes against humanity” refers to acts of murderous persecution against a body of people. The term was first used in the Hague Convention of 1907 and adopted during the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals.
The tribunal was actually well-prepared. Before its convening, at least 50 other foreign delegates from about 20 countries and their Filipino counterparts organized themselves into fact-finding teams under the International Solidarity Mission (ISM) – the second in three years – and traveled to far-flung areas – in Tarlac province, Central Luzon; Mindoro Oriental; Samar and Leyte; Surigao del Sur and Sulu. The foreign delegates and Filipino counterparts listened intently as they interviewed victims or their surviving families including children and other eyewitnesses; saw crimes re-enacted; held ocular inspections of crime scenes; examined post-mortem forensics findings, police and NBI reports; and also interviewed local officials.
Not a few delegates admitted being horrified at hearing accounts of torture, of persons killed in cold blood despite cries of mercy, of bodies mutilated and faces disfigured, children beaten up and persons abducted and declared missing to this day. They wondered how all these could happen almost two decades after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
But the ISM teams also saw first-hand the cases they were investigating – they themselves experienced being harassed and intimidated by the military. Particularly in Mindoro and Samar, mission teams were “welcomed” with veiled death threats as streamers suddenly sprouting all over the place tagged them as either “terrorist” or “communist front.” The team that was supposed to go to Sulu never took off for security problems and instead visited depressed Moro communities in Metro Manila.
These are the areas – and more – where a “war on terror” has raged since 9/11, ever since Macapagal-Arroyo pledged all-out support to U.S. President George W. Bush, Jr.’s “borderless war” against terrorism, making the Philippines as the war’s second front. But the “war on terror” has gone out of control and beyond its declared target – the small Abu Sayyaf criminal band that was supposedly ensconced in Sulu, southern Philippines and whose alleged links to Al Qaeda and other “terrorist cells” have remained in the realm of speculation – to include brutal and relentless attacks against civilians and political dissenters alike. It has threatened the people’s civil and political rights with the enforcement of the National ID System and the legislation of an anti-terrorism bill (or ATB).
Reports of human rights violations have mounted under the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency even as justice for hundreds of thousands of victims of innumerable military, paramilitary and police atrocities since the Marcos years – or for about 30 years – has remained elusive. A “reign of terror,” as UN Judge Capulong would put it in his prefatory statement before the tribunal, exists particularly in the provinces where even witnesses to crimes, human rights defenders, lawyers and church people have become victims of rights abuses themselves. Members of Congress – regular and party-list – and local officials have also received death threats.