While victims and their families continue to suffer, torturers walk free. So how can I be at ease in the world when human rights violations and torture exist? – Melissa Roxas
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – It has been more than two years but Filipino-American activist Melissa Roxas still bears the pain inflicted by her abductors.
At a press conference in Los Angeles, California a week before the International Day of the Disappeared, Roxas spoke again about the torture she went through, her continuing recovery and her search for justice.
Roxas, along with two companions, was taken by alleged state agents on May 19, 2009 in Kapanikian village, La Paz town, in Tarlac, a province just north of Manila. Held in secret for six days, Roxas was subjected to various forms of physical and psychological torture.
“Parts of me died when I was in that secret prison. It has been a long road of recovery for me. Even after two years since I was surfaced, I still have the scars and physical injuries from the torture. And there are the invisible scars that you don’t see, memories that I have to live with forever. But what gives me the strength to speak to you today is thinking about the many more people who remain disappeared, who continue to be tortured, and who have been killed. They cannot be here with us today, and their absence fills this room and the world with a longing for justice,” Roxas said. A copy of her statement was sent to Bulatlat by human rights group Karapatan.
Roxas expressed disappointment over how the Philippine government failed to conduct a thorough investigation to genuinely look into her case. She said significant evidence pointing to the culpability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in her abduction and torture was presented to the courts and human rights bodies in the Philippines.
Roxas filed a petition for writ of amparo and habeas data before the Supreme Court and a complaint before the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The Court of Appeals, tasked by the high court to conduct hearings on Roxas’s petition, granted the writ of amparo but said it did not find sufficient evidence to identify the perpetrators. The CHR, meanwhile, issued a resolution in April stating that there is insufficient evidence to support Roxas’s allegations that members of the AFP took her and subjected her to physical and mental maltreatment.
“Even after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was replaced by the new president, Benigno Aquino III, on July 2010, there has been no progress on my case, nor has he made any effort to really investigate the many other cases of human rights violations,” Roxas said.
Roxas noted that Aquino promised to bring justice to victims of human rights violations during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year administration. “It has been over a year since President Aquino III became president, and still there is no justice for the victims,” Roxas said.
Citing data from Karapatan, Roxas said under the Aquino administration, there were 48 more extrajudicial killings, five disappearances, and 29 cases of torture.
“The culture of impunity continues in the Philippines and no one has been prosecuted for these human rights violations. The burden to find the torturers and bring them to justice has mainly been on the victims, their families, and individuals,” Roxas said.
“While the victims and their families continue to suffer, the torturers walk free. So how can I be at ease in the world when human rights violations and torture exist?” Roxas said.
Appeal to UN
Roxas presented her case to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Méndez to ask the latter’s assistance to “remove roadblocks to the pursuit of justice.”
“We are asking the Special Rapporteur to call on the Philippine government to fully disclose all information regarding my case, cooperate with investigations, pursue charges against those responsible for my abduction and torture, and extend an invitation to the Rapporteur to conduct a visit to the Philippines to investigate the factors behind the government’s widespread use of torture,” Roxas said.
International human rights lawyers from the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and the law firm Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris Hoffman & Harrison, LLP serve as Roxas’s lawyers in the submission.
“I want to call upon President Aquino III to make genuine steps toward addressing the human rights violations in the Philippines and to bring the violators and torturers to justice. The Philippine Government is a signatory to several international human rights conventions and has an obligation to adhere to these human rights treaties,” Roxas said.
“Ms. Roxas has actually pursued domestic remedies within the Philippines but to no avail. At this point, there is little recourse for her but to turn to international mechanisms for justice,” Victoria Don, a member of the legal team assisting Roxas, said at the press conference.
Don said the current UN Special Rapportuer on Torture Prof. Juan Mendez bears a specific mandate from the Human Rights Council is to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights problems through activities including responding to individual complaints like the one submitted by Roxas.
Roxas’s lawyers specifically ask the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to urge the Philippine government to:
1. Provide UN with copies of all records and other information pertaining to the investigation conducted by all government entities, including the AFP, CHR, the Philippine National Police and Bureau of Investigation, of Ms. Roxas’s abduction, detention, and torture;
1. Fully cooperate and ensure the full cooperation of the AFP in an investigation to determine the identity of Ms. Roxas’s torturers, allowing full access to Fort Magsaysay and providing copies of all relevant documents, including but not limited to entry and exit records and rosters of all AFP personnel and other persons and vehicles that entered, exited, or were present at the fort during Ms. Roxas’s abduction and in the seven days immediately preceding and following her captivity;
3. Investigate and prosecute all those responsible for Ms. Roxas’s ordeal, including any member of paramilitary groups, soldiers, military officers, and elected officials all the way up the chain of command; and,
4. Provide the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture an invitation to undertake a country visit to assist the government in identifying the causes of torture in cases such as Ms. Roxas’s, and to offer practical solutions to end the use of torture and other human rights abuses and ensure that the behavior of the AFP and other forces comply with international standards.
After her bitter experience, Roxas did not cower in fear but intensified her advocacy for human rights.
Julie Gutman, Esq, executive director of the Program for Torture Victims (PTV) said of Roxas: “She has channeled her own healing into becoming a strong spokesperson to end torture in the Philippines and throughout the world. She has also helped others who have been victims of torture to have hope to heal.”
Roxas sought the help of PTV two years ago when she returned home from the Philippines after being abducted and tortured.
For over 30 years, PTV has worked to rebuild the lives of torture survivors from over 65 different countries.
“We have seen firsthand the devastating consequences of state-sponsored torture in thousands of men, women and children. We are part of a critical growing global movement that seeks to banish the use of torture and today we add our voice loudly and clearly to support Melissa Roxas and all those speaking out about her shocking persecution at the hands of the Philippine military,” Gutman said.
“Tragically, Melissa’s story is not unique. It is often those individuals like Melissa, who have the courage to stand up for the poor, to stand up for those have no voice, that become themselves victims of torture. We must stand with Melissa and all victims of torture as we confront those who violate the most fundamental laws of human decency, we must hold them accountable. Only by doing so can we truly work without torture,” Gutman said.