By Patricia Evangelista
Last updated 01:32am (Mla time) 11/18/2007

MANILA, Philippines -- "Extrajudicial killings" is a phrase that slides easily off the tongue here in the Philippines. It has been repeated and reviled so often that the sting has gone out of the horror, as if there is nothing particularly offensive about the idea that there are those who are killed and lost outside of Lady Justice's all-seeing eye. So much has been written about it, in fact, that each article seems to be a rehash of the last, the newspaper ink smudging and blurring into the same stories where the victim's name just happens to be spelled differently every time.

It is difficult to work up anger over one more lost life, one more boy who won't come home to mother, one more story exposing just how fragile bone and skin and self-respect are compared to the butt of a gun and a pepper-sprinkled sheet of cellophane wrapped around someone's head. The mothers whose angry faces fill the TV screen are just wailing women, moaning about their Jonases and Sherlyns and long-lost Karens. In the face of scandal and poverty and the eerie quiet of a Makati mall, even remembering takes an effort. And so they die.

The courts, whose judges have been standing up in unprecedented numbers for the victims of human rights violations, have been unleashing the judicial equivalent of light sabers, in the hope of providing the beginnings of justice. The latest, the writ of amparo, an old, unused power approved on Sept. 25, 2007, is a remedy available to any person "whose right to life, liberty and security has been violated or is threatened with violation by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity."

Unlike the writ of habeas corpus—a command for the respondent to "show the body"—denial is not sufficient. If the court deems it just, the writ of amparo can be used to require respondent to prove that the respondent—whether government official, military man, or private individual—did not violate or threaten with violation the
right to life, liberty and security of the aggrieved party. Essentially, the respondent is not permitted to deny allegations of kidnapping—as was done in the cases of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan—or claim that documents contain sensitive information—as was done in justifying the withholding of information relevant to the disappearance of Jonas Burgos.

As of this week, two people have been liberated because of the writ. On Oct. 27 this year, Luicito "Yongyong" Bustamante, a 21-year-old farmer from Sitio Quarry, Barangay Malabog, Paquibato District in Davao City, passed a checkpoint manned by elements of a paramilitary group formed and maintained by the 73rd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. Bustamante and two friends had distributed handbills for the barangay elections on board a motorcycle and were on their way back to Sitio Quarry when they were halted, ordered to alight from the motorcycle, and asked by a Noli Obat for names, addresses and purpose, all of which they answered. Obat told Bustamante's companions to go ahead and leave "Yongyong" for further questioning because they had information that he was a member of the New People's Army. He was not allowed to return home.

On Nov. 7, his mother and human rights organization Karapatan filed a petition for a writ of amparo with the Regional Trial Court in Davao City, aided by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and Union of People's Lawyers in Mindanao and the Free Legal Assistance Group. Last Wednesday, Executive Judge Isaac Robillo ordered Bustamante to be presented in court by Obat and other men of the Infantry Battalion. The court claimed there was no reason to deprive the Davao farmer of his liberty and basic rights as a citizen.

Bustamante confessed that he had been severely tortured, beaten, hogtied with his head wrapped in a plastic bag. He had signed an affidavit admitting his membership in the NPA, an admission his lawyers claimed was invalid, especially after Bustamante narrated how he was forced to eat his own feces while being threatened with harm to his family.

Human rights lawyer Harry Roque approves of the writ of amparo, and says that it demonstrates the irony of the judicial system. It is interesting, he says, how the writ can be made to work in low-profile cases, and yet cannot be implemented in the cases of Burgos, Cadapan and Empeño. The writ, he says, is dependent on the integrity of institutions; and in areas further from Metro Manila, even the military is afraid of the courts, and hold them in high esteem. In Manila, however, there is no assurance that even if the military is forced to bend under the writ—something it adamantly refuses to do in Burgos' case—it will submit legitimate documents.

Columnist Marit Stinus-Remonde of the Manila Times calls the writ of amparo "antisoldier." She condemns those who approve of the writ: "Those who rejoice over the Rule on the Writ of Amparo are the very groups that defend and protect the NPA and help it accomplish its mission. The NPA is the country's No. 1 perpetrator of
extrajudicial killings." This smacks, of course, of the same arrogance that allows the military to justify violence and human rights violations. Perhaps it is best for Ms Remonde to realize that human rights are not a function only of those who share her political mindset, they are rights afforded to all humanity, regardless of politics. If the writ of amparo will allow those abused by the same soldiers she is protecting to be free of abuse, it is not in defense of the NPA. It is in defense of humanity.

But perhaps Ms Remonde has a point: there are dangers to the writ that we are unaware of—ironically, from the courts itself. Just recently, Newsbreak magazine published an exposé on the Judicial Excellence Awards, described by Chief Justice Reynato Puno as the "Oscars" of the judiciary. Introduced in 1991 by the Foundation
for Judicial Excellence (FJE) to "accentuate the positive" in the halls of justice, the awards recognize sterling judicial performances, and is funded privately. Eduardo Cojuangco, who has pending cases with the Supreme Court, is a major donor to the
Judicial Excellence Awards, as well as others who also have pending cases.

That it is of public interest to be aware of who may possibly have influence on the judiciary is a given. But not for retired Supreme Court Justice Bernardo Pardo, who denied Newsbreak's request for information on the organization. In a letter to Newsbreak, Pardo said the right to privacy is protected by the writ of amparo, and
threatened to use it against the publication. "(It is) a judicial action we will not hesitate to file against Newsbreak." In his rather livid letter, he wrote that "the Society has the right to privacy, and its donors too. They have not consented to the revelation of their donations. This is a Constitutional right that the Society invokes; it is protected by the writ of amparo."

Roque is right, in the end, it all depends on the integrity of institutions.