The perils of witnesses

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It’s easy to ask people who have witnessed crimes, or who have anything to say about them, to come forward and identify themselves. It’s not so easy being the witness. Not in this cradle of democracy, it isn’t.

Musa Dimasidsing, a school district supervisor in Pagalungan town, Maguindanao, witnessed vote-rigging and ballot-snatching in his area of responsibility during the May elections, and promptly complained to the Commission on Elections. He was shot dead for his pains, and joined the long list of teachers, poll watchers, civil society volunteers and others who’ve died protecting the people’s right to choose their leaders.

The killing of journalists has not lacked witnesses who have been killed, or who’ve disappeared in fear of their lives. A witness in the killing of tabloid publisher Hernani Pastolero in Shariff Kabunsuan, Sultan Kudarat, for example, disappeared after receiving death threats when he agreed to testify on the killing. Pastolero was shot dead in front of his house last February 19 to become another name in the lengthening list of slain journalists in this bastion of press freedom.

The same fate befell two of three witnesses to the May 2002 killing of journalist Edgar Damalerio. Damalerio’s friend Edgar Amoro, a schoolteacher who was with him when he was killed in Pagadian City, was himself murdered in 2005. The second witness, Jury Ladica, had been killed in August 2002. The third witness, Edgar Onague, escaped a murder attempt on February 9, 2005.

And then there’s the case of Siche Bustamante-Gandinao, 56, who was shot and killed while she and her daughter and husband were walking along a village road in Salay town, Misamis Oriental. Gandinao had appeared as a witness before United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston on the February 8 murder of her father-in-law, Dalmacio Gadinao, who at the time of his death was provincial chair of the party list group Bayan Muna.

Siche Bustamante-Gandinao thus became herself a victim of the extra-judicial executions—the 837th since Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power in 2001—that have distinguished Arroyo’s “strong republic” and put it in the map of failed and failing democracies.

The usual demand by the so-called “law-enforcement” and “justice” agencies of the Arroyo regime for witnesses to come forward and identify themselves must be seen in this context. “Coming forward” in this sense can mean a death sentence—or at least going through an indefinite period of fearing for one’s life and family.

The Arroyo regime’s “justice,” “law enforcement” and military officials know it only too well. That is why their standard response to accusations that the police and military are involved in any kind of wrong doing is, if not to demand that charges be filed in court, for the accusers to “come forward”.

This ploy is thus itself a form of intimidation, given the demonstration effect of case after case, specially in the killing of journalists and political activists, of witnesses who, having dared come forward, have been harassed, threatened and even killed.

It’s perfectly understandable that even generals, whether retired or still in the active service, should think twice about revealing themselves. After all, the three people described in Inquirer news reports as “generals,” by claiming to have attended a command conference in which the killing of political activists was discussed, have thereby confirmed a conclusion a long list of people and organizations including the UN and international human rights groups harbor—that the military is killing activists as a matter of policy. That puts them in the list of potential victims of the extra-judicial killings they’ve denounced.

But too many people and groups critical of the inability of the Arroyo regime to stop the killings have themselves accepted the regime line that an accusation to be credible must be based on the accusers’ identifying themselves.

A crucial key to the prosecution of crimes like extra-judicial killings is the protection of witnesses. The Asian Human Rights Council points out that “getting away with murder in the Philippines is made easy by the absence of any functioning witness protection scheme. The lack of witnesses also becomes a convenient excuse for investigators to say that they have done their jobs but have no further avenues for action.”

One of the reasons for this perennial lack of witnesses in the Philippines is the sense of many potential witnessed that their identities will not be protected.

As the Asian Institute of Management -Hills Governance Center puts it in its “Whistleblowing in the Philippines Awareness, Attitudes and Structures” (www.aim-hills.ph/projectpage/prs/research3_7.htm) study, “Anonymity and confidentiality are considered to be effective protection against ostracism, discrimination, and retaliation.

“They also make for smoother investigation and validation of the disclosed information. It has been commented, however, that although a whistleblower could be granted anonymity, it would eventually have to given up when a case is filed because the defendant has the right to cross-examine all witnesses.”

However, says the study, it has also been proposed that the appropriate government agencies act on anonymous complaints instead of requiring formal complaints where anonymity is not possible.

In short, anonymity can make the difference between having a witness, none at all, or a dead one.

(BusinessWorld)

One thought on “The perils of witnesses

  1. then we have a mayor telling Arroyo that she will stay until 2010…

    It was shown on TV. For somebody who hasn’t heard of that encounter between Lim and Arroyo, TV Patrol’s report seems to imply that Lim assures Arroyo that as long as he is in power, he won’t let anybody pick on her. It was even mentioned that Lim refused to allow Bayan Muna to hold a rally despite the fact that he once said that he is opening Mendiola for demonstrations.

    all because he is a mayor known for being strict about peace and order–one thing his president is very proud of (?)

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