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USA: Rep. Erin Tanada: PHL better-off now on human rights

Words and photos by Dionesio C. Grava
First posted in  www.pinoywatchdog.com

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Under different circumstances she may have preferred to be somewhere else. However, being the face of the administration in this part, Consul General Hellen Barber-De La Vega had to respond in defense of what admittedly is not among her country’s shining moments — the human rights issue — and at the same time be wary of the sensitivities of her hosts. After all it was a commemoration of a heinous episode of our country’s history where many officials in the government had bloodied hands.

Austin Baul, Jr., president of the Filipino American Community of Los Angeles (FACLA), was designated to deliver the welcome remarks. Instead he took the Philippine government to task for the brutal killings that shook the foundation of our society. Time wrote about it: “Even for a country long hardened to election violence, the massacre of at least 57 defenseless civilians on the main southern island of Mindanao, many of them relatives and supporters of a local politician and a large group of journalists, sets a new low.”

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In her response, Consul General De La Vega reflected on her previous assignments — China and Myanmar — and pointed out that there are other countries much worse than the Philippines in the human rights arena. It is important for us to recognize, said the diplomat, that the Philippine government, the Filipino American community and others similarly aspire for truth and justice. That all the countries in Southeast Asia consider the Philippines as the torch bearer of democracy in the region. In a subsequent press release, Congen De La Vega assured that the Philippine government is steadfast in finding justice for the victims of the massacre.

That seemingly was of little assurance to human rights advocate Sokie Paulin who shared alleged horrible experience in the hands of the Philippine military in 1993 during President Fidel Ramos’ administration. She and her husband were kidnapped by the military, she said, and they were freed only because of the intercession of human rights groups. Until now there is no resolution of that case but that she hasn’t given up.

pinoywatchdog-intermission-fillersThe November 21 event was a somber memorial and forum on human rights and press freedom marking the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre held at the FACLA social hall in Filipinotown. A candlelit moment of silence was observed and a recitation of Panatang Makabayan done. The event was initiated by the Filipino American Press Club of California and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines-U.S. Chapter.

Remembered were the victims, part of an electoral convoy who were on their way to the office of the Commission on Elections to register the candidacy of Esmael Mangudadatu. While it was during the administration of Gloria Arroyo Macapagal when the alleged monstrosity occurred, the current President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III has been overseeing its aftermath.

If the crimes committed were too brutal, the wheels of justice turn excruciatingly slow. An updated fact sheet distributed by event organizers — it raised the number of deaths to 58, 32 of them journalists — shows that of the 103 accused arrested, only 76 have been arraigned. Of the 28 Ampatuans accused, 17 are still out there and only two have been arraigned. Even one of the principal suspects, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan, is yet to be arraigned.

Meanwhile, four of the witnesses have died, believed to have been killed to stop them from testifying. It is presumed that the other witnesses had either been warned or bribed. At least 130 motions have been filed by the defense stalling case proceedings. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied.

The families and orphans left behind face hardships with the loss of breadwinners. Ninety-three of the accused are still at large. Many of the private armies that give courage to crooked political clans and warlords to commit atrocious crimes are still around. Three years after the massacre, the Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and for everyone else residing in the region where it occurred.

pinoywatchdog-resource-personsThe invited speaker, Congressman Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada III of the illustrious family that champions social justice was, surprisingly, in the camp of Congen De La Vega. Human rights, he said, has always been an issue of every government from the time of Marcos’ Martial Law, in the time of GMA and even in the time of President Noy. Tanada is the deputy speaker of the House and the current spokesperson of the Liberal Party, which has President Noynoy Aquino as titular head and party chairman.

Tanada said that although human rights problems remain, it is still better off compared to that of the previous administration. “Of course,” he said, “there will be a lot of debate, the people say nothing has changed. I say that some things have changed. Who would have thought that General Palparan, who was extolled in a State of the Nation address of GMA, is now being hunted for what he is accused of having masterminded?”

Tanada said that it is a challenge for the Aquino administration to locate Palparan and prosecute him for the crimes he is accused of. About the Maguindanao massacre, while people are saying that three years is too long, he justified it saying “that is due process in our country.” People are blaming President Aquino for the slow judicial process but the president does not run the judiciary, Tanada said. The issue may be addressed by the Supreme Court to help the presiding judge facilitate the process.

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These are procedural issues that he said are within the judge’s domain. He urged that we wait because there are 99 persons accused, each one of them allowed a lawyer and then each lawyer has to speak. Maybe the judge could reduce the postponements and also minimize appeals. But then that is also part of due process, Tanada said.

Congressman Tanada also touched on his achievements as a legislator including the enactment of a law to compensate Martial Law victims. It has passed the House already and hopes

Senate would follow. About his other advocacy, the Freedom of Information Act, he expressed frustration that his term will end in June, next year, and the House still had not acted on it. He blamed the Committee of Information headed by Rep. Ben Evardone who, from November 2010 up to Nov. 13, 2012, had conducted only a total of three hearings.

Note: According to updated reports from Manila, both Senate and House versions of the FOI have passed their respective committees. It will go to the plenary next and is at a critical juncture because of the insistence of some legislators to insert a “right of reply” provision at a time when the 15th Congress is about to end.

The other invited guest, journalist-author Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel, expounded on the FOI as it is practiced in the U.S. He also recalled his friendship with Congressman Tanada dating back to their activism against the Marcos dictatorship together with Erin’s lolo, the late Senator Lorenzo Tañada, and Erin’s father, the former Senator Wigberto Tañada.

Others who spoke during the memorial event were Mylah De Leon, Benny Uy and Rafael Maniago. Fr. John Brannigan, SSC, of the St. Columban Filipino Church, did the invocation. Vics Magsaysay read a poem that he wrote, Andy Tecson and Mon Concepcion performed Ang Bayan Ko and Bob Schroder did a flute rendition of Baleleng. Emcee was Art Garcia.