In Philippines, lack of law against torture, court delays deny redress for victims

Jun. 25, 2007

Torture victims in the Philippines have suffered from the physical
and mental pain inflicted on them by those who have mercilessly
tortured them and have suffered a second time from the lack of a law
criminalising torture. For years, torture victims in the country have
been waiting for redress and a legal tool they can use to prosecute
their torturers. Even filing complaints supported with substantial
proof and medical evidence to support torture claims are later found
to be a meaningless exercise by victims and their legal counsel.
Because torture is not a criminal offence under the
Philippines’ penal code, torture victims can file a complaint,
but usually it makes little or no progress in the court system, if it
even reaches the courts. It can even take prosecutors years—for
instance, 11 years in one case—without resolving a complaint.
Often those accused are able to retire or commit similar offences
again and again without being held accountable for their violent

It is a fact of life that the use of torture by the police and
military as methods of criminal investigation and punishment is
endemic in the country. What is shocking is the negligible effort to
eradicate torture or the lack of legal remedies available to victims
and their legal counsel to challenge these illegal practices employed
by the security forces. While the authorities deny the prevalence of
torture in the country, the reality is otherwise: torture is endemic
and is commonly practiced in the Philippines. Often the burden to
prove the use of torture rests with the victims themselves, not with
those who violently abused them. Some public prosecutors have even
argued that it is normal for suspects to claim they were tortured,
thus, in effect, implying that anyone who makes such an accusation is
not trustworthy.

What is more worrisome is that some prosecutors fail to comprehend
the significance of having a law against torture. They do not find it
necessary to enact such a law, arguing that the 1987
Constitution’s Bill of Rights already prohibits torture. This
assertion is made even though they know that in order to give meaning
to this constitutional provision it requires an enabling law that
defines torture as a criminal act and provides adequate remedies.
They likewise maintain that such a law would
“overcriminalise” the offence instead of protecting the
victim’s rights. There is consequently a negligible
understanding by some public prosecutors of the absolute right
against torture. This mentality is endemic, however, not only among
prosecutors but also the public. Their understanding of torture is so
flawed that it has subconsciously become an acceptable practice, a
normal part of criminal investigations. Brutality and cruelty in
police stations and military camps against any person suspected of
committing a crime in their view deserve to be tortured. As a result
of this attitude, the basic foundation of criminal justice—the
presumption of innocence—is diluted and becomes irrelevant.

In recent times, allegations of torture against policemen have
surfaced. For instance, in January, a man claimed to have been
brutally tortured while in police custody at the Philippine National
Police (PNP) headquarters in Quezon City. The victim claimed he was
electrocuted and deprived of sleep. Although his release was later
ordered by the court, despite the gravity of his allegations, no
known credible investigation or sanctions against those involved took
place afterwards. Internal Affairs Services (IAS), a quasijudicial
body of the PNP, is mandated to conduct automatic investigations of
alleged human rights violations committed by the police, but there
has been no known action taken in this case. Not only have the
allegations of torture not been investigated, but the policemen have
not been held accountable.

Justice for torture victims is absent even in cases in which the
Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has concluded in their investigation
that the police tortured a suspect, such as the case of the
“Abadilla Five”—five men who were tortured to
confess to killing a senior police officer and sentenced to death. In
the case of the “Abadilla Five,” the victims’
complaints have been pending for 11 years but have not yet even
reached the court. Although the commission determined that the
victims were tortured and recommended that charges be filed against
the policemen who arrested and tortured them, no action has been
taken. One of the police officers in the torture complaint, Senior
Superintendent Bartolome Baluyot, was later accused of torturing
other suspects in General Santos City—three years after his
alleged involvement in the “Abadilla Five” case—and
was able to retire from the police force. Six of the policemen in the
torture complaint died before being prosecuted.

In this case, the Office of the Ombudsman for the Military and Other
Law Enforcement Offices (Moleo), where the case is presently pending,
has yet to resolve whether or not the policemen involved should be
held for trial even though this complaint has been pending for 11
years, first with the Department of Justice (DoJ) and now with the
Moleo. There is a likelihood that the case could suffer even further
delays, for the ombudsman in charge of this case was replaced two
months ago. Not only have the victims been denied redress due to the
absence of laws and the non-prosecution of their perpetrators, they
have also been denied speedy disposition of their case.

Thus, there is an unwillingness on the part of torture victims to
pursue a case in court, not only because of the lack of a law against
torture, but also due to excessive delays—the length of time and
resources they have to expend to get redress and prosecute the
perpetrators that, in the end, results in a meaningless and
exhausting exercise for them. This reality reflects the near
impossibility of obtaining remedies for torture victims. Moreover,
the victims are forced to accept these harsh realities, and the
government has continually failed to ensure that torture victims
attain justice; the government, indeed, has ultimately neglected

The absence of a law against torture and remedies for torture
victims, in essence, reflects tolerance for torture by all three
branches of government. There is little apparent concern for the lack
of accountability of the security forces that are accused of torture.
Suspects consequently can be tortured with impunity. It also sends a
strong message to victims that redress and prosecution of those
responsible for torturing them is difficult—almost
unachievable. When victims have the experience that their complaints
are not taken seriously or they witness no progress in the court
system, they come to believe that it is futile for them to complain.
No complaint means no prosecution of their case and virtual
acceptance and acquiescence for these illegal acts. This tragedy is
entirely due to the lack of remedies and the inability of the
government to protect and upheld its citizens’ constitutional

The continued failure by the government to enact enabling laws
against torture casts serious doubts on its ability to uphold the
highest standards of human rights as a newly re-elected member of the
U.N. Human Rights Council. It is inexcusable for a state party that
signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) to fail to ensure
that domestic laws exist to give meaning to the provisions of CAT.
The international community, including the people of the Philippines,
must resist the continuing state-sanctioned violence against suspects
in police stations and military camps and the absence of remedies for
torture victims. To do otherwise is to tolerate the torture of

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional
non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights
issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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