Thursday, March 18, 2010

A survivor of torture in the Philippines: Melissa Roxas speaks

Filipina-American human rights activist Melissa Roxas gave the following talk at a Pagpupugay 2 forum at Service Employees Local 1199 union hall in New York City, Jan. 30.

It is often hard, even up to now, to talk about my experience. But the reason why I tell my story is because it is also the story of many others, and it reflects the experience of many Filipinos who have been abducted and tortured in the Philippines. Not all of them have surfaced, not all of them have survived, and those who did have been afforded very few opportunities to speak about what happened to them.

It is very hard for survivors to speak out in the Philippines because most are still harassed by the Philippine military and police and threatened with death and harm to themselves and their families. Because of this, many incidents of torture have not been officially even reported.

Torture survivors, like me, also find it very hard because every time I talk about the experience it is like reliving it again. Even the mere mention of torture brings back memories. But because many more have been silenced and because one of the main objectives of torture is to silence and create fear, and to debilitate people, it is important to speak about it.

The Philippines, this group of islands in Asia, can mean different things to different people. For some it may be just a tourist destination, or just an island in Asia, a spot on the map that may have been in the news a couple times on television. People may have heard about the human rights situation in the Philippines. Or if they are aware, they may know that not enough is being done to stop these gross human rights violations.

For us who live here in the United States, the issue of torture and our own government’s involvement in torture, whether directly in places like Guantanamo, or indirectly through the training and funding of the military in countries that are guilty of human rights violations, like the Philippines, are a reality that we can no longer continue to deny, be ignorant of and choose to be indifferent about.

The real Philippines

For Filipinos the Philippines is a place they may call their homeland. Or if you are a recent Filipino immigrant, or have been in the U.S. for years, or grew up in the U.S., or were born in the U.S., the Philippines may be a place that you know intimately, or only a little bit, or maybe not at all. Or like me, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who grew up most of my life in the United States, all that is true at different stages of my life. And what I discovered, even before the Philippine military physically put blindfolds on me, is that I had been blindfolded during the early part of my life and kept from the truth about my history as a Filipino, the real reasons why my family had to immigrate to the U.S., and I was kept from the truth about what is happening in the Philippines.

Even at a young age I always felt passionate about helping the poor and the disadvantaged and realized I wanted to dedicate my life to that mission. Doing volunteer work for various organizations and different communities in San Diego and Los Angeles, I came to realize that I actually knew very little about my own heritage and the country that I had came from. And it wasn’t until I was exposed to the reality of life in the Philippines, when I visited after college, that I really understood why those inequalities exist in the world.

Before, when I used to just visit with my family, they would take me only to the malls and the nice parts of the country, the tourist destinations. But I didn’t want to ignore the beggars in the streets, the children and the slums that you have to pass through to get to the “nice” part of town. I wanted to see the real Philippines, the reality that the majority of Filipinos face every day, so, as they say, I went back to my roots.

I went back to the Philippines and lived with the working-class communities, the urban poor, the farmers and indigenous peoples, and discovered the reality of the poverty, inequality and exploitation of the majority of Filipinos. It was no longer the image in the brochures the government wanted me to see or the reality of the Philippines that many families, like mine, in their journey to what they believed would be a better life abroad, wanted to leave behind and sometimes forget. Those early blindfolds were off.

After that, when I returned to the U.S., I was able to understand better and became more active in the local Filipino community where I lived in Los Angeles. I traveled back and forth to the Philippines since 2005 to volunteer my time with the poor and marginalized communities there. And because of the human rights violations that were escalating at an alarming rate, I also participated in various human rights missions to the Philippines to investigate and expose human rights violations.

Killings, abductions and torture

There were countless incidents of killings, abductions and torture of Filipino citizens, mostly those who were active in protesting the government’s oppressive policies. These were peasants who were advocating for their right to their land; these were workers who were striking for better wages at a factory; these were students, professionals and church people; these were women who wanted better living conditions and education for their children.

These were children who were dying of preventable diseases and malnutrition. These were indigenous communities that are asserting their rights to their ancestral land and their rights for self-determination. These were human rights workers investigating and exposing the Philippine military’s human rights violations. This was Diosdado Fortuna; this was Eden Marcellana, Ronel Raguing and Julito Quirante; this was 13-year-old Mylene and 6-year-old Raymund Golloso; and many others. For this they have been killed, harassed and their communities militarized.

And so for the past two and a half years, my life in the Philippines was dedicated to human rights work and working with these various communities of peasants, workers, fishers, indigenous, women and children in the Central Luzon area. And because I was also a writer, I was writing about their conditions and about human rights in the Philippines.

And although I was aware of the human rights situation in the Philippines, I never thought that I would be targeted and become a victim myself. But one of the most brutal and alarming characteristics of the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency campaign, Oplan Bantay Laya, is that the government considers as suspect and subversive anyone who helps and is on the side of the poor; those who support the Filipino people’s right to actively participate in and decide about their own communities; people who are human rights advocates and those who advocate for truth and justice.

And apparently the Philippine government considers as a threat health care missions in the community because it was during such a mission that I, along with my two companions, Juanito Carabeo and John Edward Jandoc, was abducted. We were conducting health care surveys in La Paz, Tarlac, to plan for a future medical mission on May 19, 2009, when we were abducted by unidentified armed men who were members of the Philippine military.

My kidnapping and captivity

We were illegally held incommunicado in a place that I believed to be inside the military camp of Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, home of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army [AFP].

For six days I was blindfolded and handcuffed, interrogated and physically and psychologically tortured while I was held in captivity. They also took all my possessions, including two years’ worth of writings that I was preparing for a manuscript. Despite my constant demands for a lawyer, I was deprived of my right to legal counsel. They told me that they “got me clean” and that nobody knew where I was, that nobody was looking for me, and that they could do whatever they wanted with me there.

One of them told me that it was the Special Operations Group that tortured me. They told me I was in the government’s “Order of Battle” and accused me of being a New People’s Army [NPA] rebel, and tried to force me to sign a document admitting this, which I refused even as I was being tortured. They even had someone who identified himself as a pastor talk with me and told me they were only doing God’s will and that it was God’s will that I was tortured. My interrogators told me it was “people like me” who are the ones making it difficult for the government. They threatened to kill me, but told me that before they kill anyone, they make them pee and shit from the pain.

Surprisingly on May 25, I was released by my captors near my family’s house in Quezon City. I was warned that something bad would happen to me and my family if I talked to anyone about the incident. They also threatened me and told me not to talk to Karapatan. I feared for my life and also for the safety of my family. I left shortly for the United States, but before leaving the Philippines, going against what the Philippine military told me, I decided to contact Karapatan.

Karapatan provides support

After my ordeal, faced with such evil, you know what is good. And as harrowing as my ordeal was, it just convinced me even more that the work I was doing, working with organizations and people advocating for and defending people’s rights, could never be wrong. I will never be on the side of people who torture; I will never condone or justify the use of torture; and I will never side with what is evil and what is designed to take away our humanity for the interests of the few, for power or for profit.

Karapatan is the human rights organization in the Philippines that provided me with the support needed to file the petition for the writ of amparo and helped with all the technical aspects of filing at no charge to me. More than the actual filing of the case, Karapatan was very important in providing me with the immediate care that I needed, which included moral support and immediate medical and psychological attention.

After I was dropped off at my house, I was still very much terrified because the military was still harassing me. I still did not feel safe at my uncle’s house and would not even leave my room, eat much or talk to many people. I was also still very weak from my wounds from the torture.

The military told me that nobody would believe my story and that they could take me again and hurt me and my family. The first step out of that cycle of fear was publicly filing the petition and making my ordeal public. It was Karapatan that helped me in the first steps and helped me feel supported, which was helpful in overcoming the feeling of helplessness that the torturers had wanted to instill in me. I think if it were not for this, I would have [had to deal] with a worse type of debilitating fear and feeling of helplessness.

I had already returned to the United States when prior hearings at the Court of Appeals were held [in the Philippines]. The lawyers of the Judge Advocate General’s Office, representing the Philippine government, argued that my abduction was stage-managed and that my injuries were self-inflicted, that I was an NPA member and was kidnapped by the NPA themselves. The AFP also continued to deny that its officers and soldiers were involved in my torture.

It is always a “blame-the-victim” mentality, and instead of investigating the perpetrators, the victim is often the one who is scrutinized and investigated. It was most absurd to imply that I could have done or would do this to myself. And the medical report conducted after I surfaced is consistent with evidence of abduction and torture. The Philippine government and military also often label people working in legal and democratic organizations advocating for their rights as communists and NPA rebels to justify illegal detention and even torture in their counterinsurgency campaigns.

In my case, I was being forced to admit I was an NPA rebel, and I had consistently denied that I was a member of the NPA and told them I was a writer and activist. But under any circumstance, illegal detention and torture is ALWAYS WRONG no matter who the person is who is detained or tortured. NPA or not. Torture is against all the international laws on human rights and covenants. Any society that uses and condones the use of torture rejects the basic principles of human rights and human dignity. It is also not a true democracy nor what we would even consider a civilized society. You can never justify the use of torture. It dehumanizes the torturers, it dehumanizes the tortured, and it dehumanizes a whole society that is witness to it and chooses not to do anything about it. You can never justify the use of torture.

Taking the torturers to court

The Court of Appeals where I filed the petition for the writ of amparo required that I affirm my testimony in person in the Philippines or the petition would be archived. Although it was a difficult decision to return to the Philippines because of safety concerns, I decided to return to testify before the Court of Appeals and other investigative bodies to obtain justice and tell the public what happened to me, because it is also the stories of many others who are abducted and tortured, and because until now, there still has not been any justice for the countless number of victims of human rights violations.

I also did not want to give the Philippine government the chance of archiving the case and not be accountable for what they did, just as they had with so many other cases.

In September, the Court of Appeals decided in my favour for the writ of amparo and habeas data, which granted me and my family protection, and for the expulsion and destruction of all records that violate my right to privacy. The court upheld that my abduction and torture did take place and that the Philippine government’s argument that the incident was stage-managed was baseless and therefore rejected.

However, the decision by the court was only a partial victory and still far from the justice that I seek because it failed to identify state-security forces as responsible for my abduction and torture, even though there was sufficient evidence presented pointing to the Philippine military. And they did not grant the request for the further investigation of my case, including an inspection of places, and return of all my things that were taken from me.

The Philippine judicial system is still very much flawed, and judges and lawyers are still heavily influenced, intimidated and controlled by the Philippine government. In certain instances, judges and lawyers are also threatened and harassed to make sure they do not make decisions that are unfavourable to the government.

My experience with the Philippine judicial system is not unique. And like many other survivors and families whose loved ones have been killed, disappeared or tortured, justice still remains elusive.

I have submitted my case to the State Department of the United States and have written to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It remains to be seen if they will take action to investigate my case of abduction and torture. It is disturbing to me that the White House has been quiet about the human rights situation in the Philippines, and Mrs. Clinton’s recent visit to the Philippines did not really address the current human rights violations and instead she expressed her solid support for the Philippine government and the military.

Strength from solidarity

One important reason why my case of abduction and torture was widely publicized in the Philippines, and why the Philippine government could not easily ignore my case, was because of the support from the various organizations in the Philippines such as Bayan, Desaparecidos, Hustisya and Karapatan, along with the help of Congresspersons in the Philippines such as Satur Ocampo, Liza Maza and Erin Tanada.

The Commission on Human Rights headed by Leila de Lima [not to be confused with the Presidential Human Rights Committee], an independent investigative body, also helped with investigating the case. There was also support from international groups and individuals from the United States like NYCHRP, BAYAN USA and church groups like the United Methodist Church and others.

This experience showed me that public pressure and people caring, making noise and taking action makes a difference. And I hope that here in the United States we can do more. Because MORE awareness and more actions need to be done to stop these rampant human rights violations.

There is a culture of impunity in the Philippines. And even with international condemnation of these human rights violations from the United Nations Human Rights Council, recognized organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, until now, no one has been prosecuted for human rights violations, and the Philippine government continues its brutal policy unabated.

What we need is the voice of everyone in this room, the voice of everyone in the U.S., to say no to torture, to say no to human rights violations.

What should also be especially disturbing to us here in the United States is that our tax-payer money is being used to fund and train the Philippine military and police who are guilty of committing human rights violations. Again, I ask, where is the outrage? Who is really making the decisions for the people, and where is our tax money going?

In 2008, following a hearing in the United States Senate on the human rights situation in the Philippines convened by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California, the U.S. Congress voted to impose, as a condition for the release of the full amount of 2009 military aid, the Philippine government’s compliance with three human rights conditions. Boxer did this because her constituents raised their voices against human rights violations; so it shows that the letters, the visits to her office, the campaigning had an impact.

The conditions include the implementation of the recommendations of Philip Alston, the U.N. rapporteur on human rights; the investigation and prosecution of military officials credibly alleged to be responsible for human rights violations; and that violence and intimidation of legal organizations should not form part of the Armed Forces’ policy.

In 2009 the United States government did withhold $2 million in military aid to the Philippines because it failed to meet these three conditions. [Philippine President Gloria Macapagal] Arroyo’s only response in addressing the human rights violations was to hire lobbyists in Congress to take out these conditions and make sure that the Philippine military got even more funding. What is $2 million anyway if they are still going to get the rest of the $30 million in military aid?

Stop U.S. support for Philippine torture

In fact, the proposed U.S. budget for 2010 military aid to the Philippines has increased to $33 million. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo also said that the Obama administration recently requested, upon submission of its 2010 budget request, the deletion of conditions on the $2 million security assistance in the 2009 appropriations act in recognition of significant progress made by the Philippines in addressing human rights concerns. I repeat — in recognition of the significant progress made by the Philippines in addressing human rights concerns.

And WHAT may I ask is the basis for saying that the Philippines has made progress in addressing human rights? Only a criminal president like Arroyo would say that it was progress when the political killings in the Philippines were reduced from once every other day in 2006 to once a week in 2007 and 2008, and that enforced disappearances occurred twice a month in 2007 compared to the six cases per month in 2006.

And for the United States government to take President Arroyo’s word for it and recognize this “progress” is an outrage. People are still dying — specifically, being killed, being abducted, tortured, arrested and harassed.

If this is what the United States considers progress, again I ask, where is the outrage? We have to start asking the hard questions. Are these the type of policies that really reflect the values of the majority of the people in the United States? And if not, why are we letting our government make these decisions for us?

We here in the United States can do something to stop human rights abuses. We need to start asking the hard questions. Ignorance or indifference should not be an option. We need to act to stop human rights violations in the Philippines.

Never stop fighting for justice

The Philippine military wanted to permanently keep the blindfolds on me so that they could unsee what I’ve seen, unlearn what I’ve learned, to try to silence my voice and destroy my humanity. And even eight months after my ordeal, I still bear the physical scars and marks of that torture, and every time I see those marks on my body, feel the pain in my shoulder, I am reminded of what happened in that dark corner of the world that I had known during those six days in May where dying came so slowly and where men are not men and women are not women.

And even as the physical scars heal, and the invincible ones stay and I will probably have to live my whole life with those memories, I refuse to be intimidated, and I refuse to be silenced. Just like the many families of the people who were killed and disappeared, who refuse to stop fighting for justice, and like the Filipinos who continue to stand up and oppose a repressive regime, it is all of them who give me the strength.

Mrs. Edith Burgos, whose son Jonas Burgos has been missing since 2006, once replied to the question of whether or not she had hope that her son is still alive. She said that “There is no proof that Jonas is dead, and there is no proof that he is alive, but I choose to believe he is alive.” And she has never stopped looking for Jonas. Just as Lolita Robinos has never stopped looking for her missing son Romulo, or Ipe Soco looking for his mother Gloria.

There are many more stories that need to be heard. Let us listen to them. We need to oppose impunity and stand in solidarity with the millions of people in the Philippines who are fighting for truth and justice. There is much work that needs to be done. Let us keep these stories alive. Let us always choose to be on the side of the truth. Let us continue to fight for justice.

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