MANILA, Philippines—Both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the armed members of the rebel group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have committed human-rights abuses, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday.
The international rights group said the rebels used innocent civilians as human shields. Government security forces on the other hand allegedly tortured or mistreated suspected rebels in custody.
In interviews with some of the suspected rebels being detained in the Zamboanga Central Police Office, HRW said that military and police tortured those in custody and were being made to admit they were MNLF rebels.
“Five [of those jailed] said police or military agents interrogated them by putting a plastic bag over their head, suffocating them. They said they were also punched and kicked by their interrogators,” HRW said in a statement.
“The suspects said their interrogators sought to force them to confess to being MNLF members. One told HRW he admitted as much because he ‘couldn’t stand the pain anymore’,” it said.
One elderly detainee claimed he was blindfolded and then his head dunked into a toilet bowl two times and another said alcohol was poured into his nose to make him confess, HRW said.
HRW citing Philippine laws said suspects can only be detained for 36 hours after which charges must be filed against them.
“Most of the rebel suspects in custody had not been charged after up to 10 days in cramped jails,” HRW said.
HRW refuted the claims previously made by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II that the suspects could not be charged yet because the Justice Department office in Zamboanga City had been closed since the fighting erupted.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone taken into custody, including suspected rebels, are treated humanely,” Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW said.
“Closing down the Justice Department offices is no excuse for seeing that those arrested are properly charged or released,” he said.
HRW said that the rebels had committed serious human rights violations when they seized entire villages, held civilians hostage and used them as shields.
One of those who was held hostage was Michelle Candido, 27, along with her husband George and son Jeomi, 2, HRW said.
Candido and her family were captured by the rebels as they were evacuating. They were brought into a church along with 50 others, all were Christians as Muslims were freed by the rebels, HRW said.
“The rebels tied up the hostages and directed them to move to the center of the street outside,” HRW said.
The hostages were made to shout “ceasefire” at military troops and were used as cover by the rebels when they moved out and away from the church.
“They wanted us to escort them and then they will leave us,” Candido was quoted as saying in their interview with HRW.
She said that gunshots erupted after the rebels used them as shields in moving out, which resulted in the death of one of the hostages.
“The shots came from afar,” she said. “It’s as if they didn’t care about the hostages.”
“The shooting was relentless,” Monica Limen, a 50-year-old housewife who was among the hostages with two of her children, told HRW.
Another hostage that was caught in the gunfire, identified by HRW as, Lemuel Agucita, 17, told HRW that “it was like a massacre.”
“The shooting just went on and on. We dropped to the ground, some jumped into the sewer,” Agucita said.
Violations of International Law
HRW said that both sides have committed serious violations of international law when they took hostages, used them as shields, and mistreated and tortured the captured suspects.
“Customary international law also prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and attacks in which the anticipated harm to civilians is greater than the expected military gain,” HRW said.
“Violations by one side never justify violations by the other. Thus, the holding of hostages and use of human shields by the MNLF does not permit the Philippine army to conduct attacks in disregard of the civilians who have been placed at risk,” it said.
Torture and the illegal detention of suspects were also prohibited by international law. Suspects should be brought promptly before a judge and charged with the appropriate criminal offense or released.
“The government has an obligation to investigate those responsible for the mistreatment of persons in custody and discipline or prosecute them as appropriate,” HRW said.
“When the smoke finally clears in Zamboanga, the government will need to investigate what happened, including holding accountable members of the military and police who committed abuses,” Adams said.