Had it not been for the identities of the four victims, the shooting incident last June 29 in Jolo, Sulu, involving members of the local police force would have gone unnoticed, or dismissed as another case of random violence that has become commonplace in the strife-ridden southern city.
But the four fatalities were intelligence agents of the Philippine Army. According to their superiors, they were pursuing suspected terrorist bombers when they were stopped allegedly at gunpoint by the policemen, who had initially reported the incident as a shootout. Eyewitness accounts and footage from CCTV cameras showed otherwise.
The military’s reaction was terse and direct. It was a rubout, they said. The leadership demanded an impartial probe and swift justice. Unspoken was the deeper undercurrents of the incident, particularly its impact on troop morale. The fact was not lost to them – their own men were victims of extra-judicial killings committed by policemen.
The June 29 Jolo incident perhaps best captures the rapid descent of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the eyes of its citizens. It has earned the reputation – for some rightfully deserved – as thugs in uniform. The war on drugs provided the perfect excuse, and in many respects, the perfect cover for a war on the poor and an attack on constitutional rights. As long as the bodies of drug lords pile up, they were offered protection from prosecution. Observers saw this an incentivizing summary execution. And the bodies did indeed pile up by the thousands, but they included women and children, and suspected street-level pushers.
Four years after, the war on drugs is nowhere near victory. But the arrogance, the acts of abuse, and the disregard for due process and the rule of law have been institutionalized. They have superseded the norms of professional conduct and behavior, and have all but replaced the rules of engagement. Ranking police officers themselves have even been exposed for being complicit in the illegal drugs trade. This is the current state of the PNP.
Local and international organizations, among them the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNCHR), have been calling for an end to the wanton violence and to hold to account those involved. After years of stalling, the government, through the Department of Justice, informed the UNCHR last week that it had created an inter-agency panel to review over 5,000 drug-related police operations that resulted in deaths. The panel will be “external to the PNP” and will review all the cases to determine if those involved should be charged in court.
The media quoted the Justice Secretary as assuring the UN body, which had earlier heard a damning report on the drug war killings from the
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the review intends to reinforce accountability in the conduct of the drug war. The review is set to be concluded by November. However, this is not the first time that the government has promised to review the conduct of the drug war and file cases against policemen involved in extra-judicial killings.
Accountability is the least we can expect from the police, what with a PNP leadership eager and willing to condone abusive behavior.
The reason policemen act as if they are untouchable is their present leadership has been predisposed to clear them of offenses even in the absence of official investigations. In a post on Facebook, a former military officer, who now holds a civilian position in government, called out the present PNP leadership for tolerating the abusive behavior of his men.
This leads me to my next point. The incident should be seen as a preview – unwelcome as it is – of how the Anti-Terror Law can be abused by the police. Had their victims not been soldiers, the victims could have been easily tagged as terrorists. But in this case, the real terrorists, according to the military, were able to get away.
The war on drugs has sired a police force that deems itself beyond the law. What then can we expect from them once they are covered by the mantle of protection provided by the Anti-Terror Law?