Probe military abuses of Zambo detainees including children, rights groups demand

A 17-year-old told Human Rights Watch that Philippine soldiers beat him up to force him to admit he was a rebel fighter. He said he eventually lied and said he was with the MNLF so that the beatings would stop.


MANILA — The administration of President Benigno Aquino III is officially hunting down Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) while searching for bases and proofs with which to file charges against him. But for human rights organizations such as Karapatan and Human Rights Watch, an even more pressing task that needs doing is conducting a probe into the Philippine military’s alleged mistreatment of accused MNLF forces, violations of international humanitarian law, and vast destruction of private and public properties in the course of the government’s all-out armed siege against the MNLF.

“Aquino’s purely militarist solution to the Zamboanga crisis surpassed the damage caused by Misuari’s armed attack,” Marie Hilao-Enriquez, Karapatan chairperson, said in a statement.

Earlier, Karapatan and Moro-Christian Peoples’ Alliance warned of human rights violations against civilians in the course of the Armed Forces’ operation against the MNLF. Last September 19, Hilao-Enriquez warned against a likely “repeat of the Basilan siege in 2001 where more than a hundred Moro citizens and youth were arbitrarily arrested on mere suspicion of being Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members.”

“Those Moro victims were heavily tortured by Philippine security forces to force them to admit they were ASG members,” Hilao-Enriquez recalled.

“After 12 long years of detention, many of those victims now dubbed as the Basilan 73 are still imprisoned in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, awaiting court resolution. Most of them, Hilao-Enriquez said, are cases of mistaken identity.

Today, human rights workers in Zamboanga City are also reporting of “widespread fear among civilians.”

“People knew that many of those arrested were not MNLF members but residents in affected villages. Yet, no one wants to talk for fear of military reprisal. It’s the same story,” said Hilao-Enriquez.

The human rights leader said Misuari must answer for the violations he and his men committed, such as using civilians as hostages, “but Aquino can’t just go to war and crush the dissenters through a purely military solution.”

In a statement emailed to media, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) also questioned the “contemptuous declarations of ‘mission accomplished’” made by spokespersons of President Aquino and its state forces.

“The all-out siege against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that lasted more than 20 days, is an unnecessary war which the Aquino regime chose to wage against the option of negotiating with the MNLF in order to secure the safety of the hostages and draw the armed MNLF forces out of the city and civilian communities, “ the CPP said.

The revolutionary group questioned the Armed Forces’ claims about the ‘safety of hostages.’

“What ‘safety of hostages’ is the AFP talking about, when it dropped bombs, fired mortars and indiscriminately sprayed bullets even when hundreds of civilians were still inside their communities either as hostages held by the MNLF or ordinary residents caught in the crossfire? What ‘safety of hostages’ when the Aquino regime did not even seek the safe passage of civilians through negotiations?” the CPP asked.

Philippine armed forces’ alleged abuses

The government has detained dozens of suspected Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front since fighting began in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines on September 9, 2013. Human Rights Watch said on Thursday (Oct. 4) that the detainees, including children, had reported mistreatment by security forces.

Citing knowledgeable sources in the area, Human Rights Watch reported that rebel suspects complained of being beaten and mistreated by military and police personnel before being turned over to the San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm, a government prison facility at the outskirts of Zamboanga City where most suspected rebels are being held. Arrested MNLF suspects were allegedly tortured at the Southern City Colleges, a school in downtown Zamboanga where much of the September fighting occurred.

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

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.

Human Rights Watch has not been granted access to detention facilities. It admitted in a statement that it was unable to corroborate accounts or investigate the extent of the problems undergone by detainees. But the group still shared the report it culled from its trusted sources in the area. Their report cited cases of beatings and various mistreatment of suspected MNLF rebels in detention.

For example, citing sources, a 77-year-old man allegedly said that soldiers had pushed him to the ground and then kicked and stomped on him repeatedly after he was arrested as a suspected MNLF rebel.

Children, ages 15 and 17, show wounds sustained while being held in detention by government forces in Zamboanga City, Philippines, on October 2, 2013. Authorities said the children were members of the Muslim rebel group Moro National Liberation Front, a charge they denied. (Photo by Carlos H. Conde, courtesy of Human Rights Watch)
Children, ages 15 and 17, show wounds sustained while being held in detention by government forces in Zamboanga City, Philippines, on October 2, 2013. Authorities said the children were members of the Muslim rebel group Moro National Liberation Front, a charge they denied. (Photo by Carlos H. Conde, courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

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. HRW said they reported that they were blindfolded and then repeatedly punched, slapped, and kicked. The three reportedly showed Human Rights Watch cuts and bruises due to the 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.

The government forces told these children to admit that they were MNLF, the Human Rights Watch said. It is a violation of international law to use children under 18 for any purpose.

“One of them (government soldiers) pushed me to the ground and kicked me in the back,” the 15-year old reportedly said. The 17-year-old told HRW that Philippine soldiers beat him up to force him to admit he was a rebel fighter. He said he eventually lied and said he was with the MNLF so that the beatings would stop.

The other 15-year-old said security forces had tied his hands so tightly 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.

Aside from these children, at least three others were reported to have been arrested by government forces and mistreated in detention as suspected MNLF fighters. Police reportedly 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.

Human Rights Watch added that they received reports that detainees have had very limited or no access to lawyers and family members. Police and military personnel allegedly continue to interrogate the San Ramon detainees, including those charged with offenses, without the presence of legal counsel, a violation of Philippine and international laws 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,” Human Rights Watch said.

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

There were families who learned belatedly that missing relatives were in jail, but HRW reported that if they were suspected as MNLF, they were denied access to the prisoners.

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.

International law

Human Rights Watch reminded the government that 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 HRW said.

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

The rights group also reminded the government that 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, HRW said. The group added that children had indeed been used in the fighting by the MNLF, they are entitled to psychological services and assistance in social reintegration. The involved children were instead forced to admit they were child combatants with the MNLF. (

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