Government accused of operating army-backed death squads

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am

Benjaline 'Beng' Hernandez was an idealistic 22-year-old fresh out of university when she was shot dead by gunmen who attacked the peasants she was trying to help.

Evangelina Hernandez insists her daughter was a victim of the Philippine military - killed in cold blood on Mindanao island in 2002 by a militia led by an army sergeant, probably on the orders of officers fighting communist rebels.

With growing international concern that hundreds of priests, trade unionists and political activists have been killed by army-backed death squads since 2001, the campaigns for justice by people like Evangelina Hernandez are receiving new attention.

Last month, a retired judge commissioned by the government to investigate more than 800 assassinations since 2001 blamed army officers for carrying out many of the killings, although he did not believe it was army policy.

Diplomats have expressed grave concerns and the UN has sent a special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who will meet Ms Hernandez this week.

'My daughter wanted to help her country,' she said. 'I had no idea that what she was doing would be dangerous.'

One of the posters printed by the housewife, 45, has a shocking picture of her daughter's bloody corpse, her hands still raised in supplication, together with an appeal for justice and a photo taken shortly before the murder of a smiling young woman who had just become a human rights campaigner.

Many of the victims' relatives squarely blame President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Since she came to power in 2001, murders of leftists by masked gunmen have become commonplace, raising suspicions that there is a policy to tackle the communist New People's Army (NPA) by terrorising sympathisers.

Human rights group Karapatan details 833 murders and nearly 200 disappearances, which it says is a rate of killing exceeding the martial law period under disgraced strongman Ferdinand Marcos. The government claims many of the murders are the result of power struggles within the NPA.

Karapatan secretary-general Marie Hilao-Enriquez said: 'The government is operating death squads. They hire assassins or recruit them from the military or police. People in the army say that even those who give a glass of water to the NPA have to be neutralised.'

In her State of the Union speech last year Mrs Arroyo praised Major-General Jovito Palparan, who Karapatan believes has masterminded a death-squad policy.

Mrs Hilao-Enriquez said: 'Gloria learned a lot from Marcos. The horrors that we saw under martial law have been brought back.'

Erlinda Bajado, a 65-year-old teacher whose husband was gunned down near his home in 2005, also blamed the president.

'These orders naturally come from the highest position in the land,' she said.