MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines has asserted its right to have access to Philippine citizens being held by Malaysian authorities in Sabah as government had no confirmed information of their location and condition, relying only on Malaysian news reports on the arrests.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez said Thursday that the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has conveyed to Malaysia the Philippines’ reiteration of its request to visit Filipinos detained in Sabah in connection with the fighting between the so-called royal army of the sultan of Sulu and Malaysian forces.
“We are insisting that we should be allowed access to the people who are in their custody (especially) those who are in charge. This request is based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” said Hernandez.
“The Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario has already instructed our Ambassador to get access to the eight Filipinos so that we would be able to find out their personal conditions, their individual details as well as any assistance we can provide to our people,” said Hernandez in a briefing Thursday afternoon.
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requires every signing country–Malaysia included–to grant foreign governments access to their detained citizens. Hernandez said the convention was a “reciprocal arrangement” among all countries.
Hernandez said the Philippines’ request includes access to eight followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III reported to be facing terror charges–a violation punishable by death. More than 100 others in Malaysian custody face similar charges.
“What we’re trying to do now is request access, to confirm news reports regarding the eight being charged by the Malaysian authorities for crimes on terrorism. That’s part of the task of our Embassy so we’re able to confirm this news report and get details about report,” said Hernandez.
He said the DFA has yet to independently confirm details and circumstances of their arrest and charges they face, saying information the foreign office so far has is “based on reports that came out from Malaysia.”
“What is important is to get details about them, to know exactly what charges are filed against them and legal representations made for them,” said Hernandez.
The Philippines made a similar request earlier this month when Malaysia made the first arrest in connection with the standoff. But Malaysia declined citing the difficult security situation on the ground, Hernandez said.
Asked what course of action the government could take given Malaysia’s rejection of its initial request, Hernandez said: “All we have to do is insist because that’s part of our mandate, our obligation to take care of our people and to protect their rights and make sure they are protected.”
Amid the ongoing conflict in Sabah, the DFA is still optimistic that the situation could still be resolved peacefully.
“We have to be positive about this issue. That has been our call from the beginning- that this issue be resolved peacefully and immediately so that no further loss of lives would happen,” said Hernandez.
He said “close relations” between the Philippines and Malaysia continue despite the Sabah incident and that lines of communication remain open between Philippine officials and their Malaysian counterparts.
“Our agencies and top officials are in constant communication with their counterparts and we are hoping that we’ll be able to enhance this relationship and overcome any existing challenges we are encountering especially on this issue of the Lahad Datu incident,” said Hernandez.