Philippines: Honour Pope Francis’ visit by ending torture once and for all

By Sister Maria Vida Cordero, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Amnesty International Philippines

This week, people across the Philippines are incredibly excited about the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis.

Not only is this the first papal visit to our country in two decades, but Pope Francis has already inspired millions of people across the globe – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – with his message of hope, mercy and compassion for the world’s poorest people.

One of the issues that Pope Francis has spoken out about strongly and clearly continues to blight the Philippines – torture. Last year he condemned torture as a “very grave sin”.

His Holiness has repeatedly urged governments around the world to stamp out this abhorrent practice and “invite[s] Christians to commit themselves to work together for its abolition and to support victims and their families.”

Perhaps it is divine providence that torture will actually be on the table of the Philippine Senate the same week as the Papal visit.

On 14 January, an inquiry on police torture will be held jointly by the Senate Committees on Justice and Human Rights and on Public Order. The hearing comes as a direct result of a report which the human rights organization Amnesty International – on whose Philippines board I serve as Chair – released in December.

As early as the 1970s, Amnesty International has campaigned internationally on behalf of Filipinos who are being subjected to human rights violations. During the Martial Law period in the Philippines, Amnesty International campaigned for the release of then Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. as a Prisoner of Conscience. He was detained incommunicado for long periods of time – a practice that can amount to torture.

Our recent report documented pervasive and rife torture in the Philippines, in particular in police detention, and the culture of impunity that allows perpetrators to get away with it.

Despite the Philippines’ ratification of two key international anti-torture treaties, torture methods such as electrocution, mock executions, waterboarding, asphyxiating with plastic bags, beatings and rape continue to be employed by officers who torture for extortion and to extract forced confessions.

Those responsible are almost never held to account, allowing this vicious cycle of abuse to continue unchecked. In 2009, the Philippines passed a progressive Anti-Torture Act, but it has been poorly implemented – it is telling that, more than five years since it was enacted, there has not been a single conviction under the law.

The simple fact is that no one who is taken in to police detention is safe from torture, though those most at risk include police informants who “want out”, repeat offenders and political activists. The majority of these people come from poor backgrounds.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has declared 2015 the “Year of the Poor”, partly in honour of the visit of Pope Francis, a known champion for the poor – it is important to remember that poverty does not just mean a lack of money, but it is often society’s underprivileged who are most at risk of human rights violations, such as torture.

This week’s Senate inquiry was announced on the very day Amnesty International’s report was launched. It is to the Philippine Senate’s credit that they have shown a willingness to tackle the issue and taken Amnesty International’s report seriously.

The Senate hearing, if it is followed up with genuine action, could be the first step to ending torture in our country once and for all. What the Philippines needs is to back up its legal commitments with decisive action. The government’s next step should be putting in place two truly independent systems, one for monitoring places of detention and one unified and effective institution to investigate and prosecute police abuse.

Crucially, those responsible for torture must be held to account – the government needs to send a clear message that no one is above the law.

The case of Darius Evangelista is as shocking as it is telling. Darius, a porter, was picked up by police in 2010, and his severed head was later found floating in Manila Bay. The case drew both national and international attention when a video surfaced of him being tortured by police. But despite uniformed police officers being clearly visible in this video, no one has been convicted in the case, and three of the seven officers implicated in his torture are still at large.

For too long, cases like Darius’ have been the norm in the Philippines. In many ways, he embodies the kind of people Pope Francis himself shows mercy and compassion to: the poor, the vulnerable, victims of human rights violations. One of the best ways for the Philippine government to honour the Pope’s visit to our country is to genuinely make the effort to give justice to victims of torture and to stamp out this horrific practice once and for all.

Learn more about Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign.