Philippines: Investigate Zamboanga Detainee Mistreatment

(Manila) – The Philippines government should investigate alleged mistreatment of detainees, including children, by security forces in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government has detained dozens of suspected Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) since fighting began in the city on September 9, 2013.

Knowledgeable sources told Human Rights Watch that rebel suspects have reported being beaten and otherwise mistreated by military and police personnel before being turned over to the San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm, a government prison facility on the outskirts of Zamboanga City where most suspected rebels are being held. Torture of alleged MNLF suspects is reported to have occurred at the Southern City Colleges, a school in downtown Zamboanga where much of the September fighting occurred.

“The Philippines government should promptly investigate all credible accounts of detainee mistreatment, take appropriate action to stop it, and punish those responsible,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Philippines security forces’ past record of detainee abuse demands that authorities be doubly vigilant in Zamboanga.”

As of October 1, there were 277 suspected MNLF rebels in police custody, 229 of them at the San Ramon Penal Farm, 41 at the Zamboanga Central Police District, 1 at the police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group facility, and 6 children at the Department of Social Welfare and Development. As of the end of September, 97 of these detainees had been charged with rebellion, while charges are still being prepared against the others.

On September 9, MNLF rebels took over five coastal villages in Zamboanga City and took dozens of residents hostage. Fighting continued through October 1, though all of the hostages were released.

Human Rights Watch documented one incident, reportedly repeated elsewhere, in which rebels used hostages as “human shields” and the Philippines military attacked the rebels, causing civilian deaths and injuries. The fighting killed 202 rebel fighters, soldiers, and civilians, displaced nearly 120,000 people, and resulted in the destruction of more than 10,000 homes.

Allegations of mistreatment

Human Rights Watch received reports from several knowledgeable sources of beatings and other mistreatment of suspected MNLF rebels in detention. Because Human Rights Watch has not been granted access to detention facilities, we have been unable to corroborate these accounts or investigate the extent of the problem.

A 77-year-old man alleged that soldiers pushed him to the ground and then kicked and stomped on him repeatedly after he was arrested as a suspected MNLF rebel.

Three teenage boys – one aged 17 and the others aged 15 – alleged that security forces detained them in the first days of the fighting on suspicion that they were MNLF soldiers. Each said he was blindfolded and then repeatedly punched, slapped, and kicked. The three showed Human Rights Watch cuts and bruises that they said were from mistreatment. The three denied that they were MNLF rebels, but said that MNLF rebels forced them to help feed hostages during the height of the fighting in Santa Barbara village, Zamboanga City. It is a violation of international law for forces to use children under 18 for any purpose.

“They told us to admit that we were MNLF,” one 15-year-old told Human Rights Watch. “One of them pushed me to the ground and kicked me in the back.” The 17-year-old said security forces beat him to try to force him to admit he was a rebel fighter. He said he eventually lied and said he was with the MNLF to get the beatings to stop.

The other 15-year-old said security forces tied his hands so tightly that the rope cut into his wrists. He said he was whipped with a rope that left a bruise on his side. The three youths told Human Rights Watch that security forces only removed their blindfolds on September 26, when they were turned over to a police precinct which in turn brought them to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) facility for children in conflict with the law.

At least three other children arrested by the security forces were detained and mistreated as suspected MNLF fighters. Police handcuffed two of them to adult suspects and forced them to sit on the floor beside a detention cell used by female MNLF suspects for nearly two weeks without charges.

Restricted access to lawyers, relatives, and rights monitors

Various sources told Human Rights Watch that detainees have had very limited or no access to lawyers and family members. Police and military personnel continue to interrogate the San Ramon detainees, including those charged with offenses, without the presence of legal counsel, a violation of Philippines and international law guaranteeing legal representation. Lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office represent dozens of the detainees at San Ramon, but it is not clear if these court-appointed lawyers have been present for all interrogations.

Prison authorities have interfered with the ability of the lawyers for several detainees to confer with their clients. Prison authorities had initially insisted that any meetings with MNLF suspects be done while the suspect remained inside his cell. Eventually, however, the prison authorities relented and allowed private meetings with lawyers.

Multiple sources told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities have also barred families of MNLF suspects from access to the San Ramon facility and other detention sites.

The family of Sattar Duran, a 52-year-old suspected MNLF rebel arrested during the early days of the fighting, told Human Rights Watch they only learned on October 2 that he had been detained in San Ramon. “We have been looking for him but nobody told us where he was or where he was brought,” said Tita Duran, his wife.

Other Zamboanga residents told Human Rights Watch that several people from the five affected villages where the fighting was heaviest remain unaccounted for and are considered missing, among them an imam, or Muslim preacher. It is not known if those missing individuals are among the detained suspects at San Ramon.

The Philippines authorities are permitting access to the detainees to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the governmental Commission on Human Rights. However, the government has denied access to nongovernmental human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to the San Ramon facility and other sites holding MNLF suspects.

International law

International law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of people in custody. Individuals apprehended by the government should be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a credible criminal offense or released. The government has an obligation to investigate those responsible for the mistreatment of people in custody and discipline or prosecute them as appropriate.

The Philippines is party to several international treaties that address the issue of children and armed conflict. According to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, armed groups such as the MNLF are prohibited under any circumstance from recruiting or using in hostilities anyone under the age of 18. Placing children in detention with adults violates the government’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other treaties. If these children have indeed been used in the fighting by the MNLF, they are entitled to psychological services and assistance in social reintegration.

The use of Southern City Colleges by security forces to detain suspects also violates Philippines domestic law (Republic Act No. 7610), which prohibits the use of public infrastructure, such as schools, for military purposes.

“The Philippines government has an obligation to conduct its investigations of rebel suspects in a transparent manner that respects due process and the rights of the accused to meet with lawyers and family members,” Adams said. “Blocking access to detention facilities heightens the risk of serious mistreatment.”