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Philippine Activists Question Political Killings Probe

Philippine human rights workers and politicians are criticizing a police investigation into the killings of leftist activists and journalists. They say the probe - which concluded this week - was a hastily conducted cosmetic exercise designed to divert attention from this serious issue. Philippine police say they carried out an objective inquiry, but admit much-needed witnesses were reluctant to come forward.

The Philippine human-rights group Karapatan says that more than 700 leftist activists, students, community organizers and journalists have been killed since President Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001.

Rights group Amnesty International has also expressed grave concern about the killings and called for urgent steps to stop the violence.

Karapatan and leftist groups say the security forces are involved in the attacks, but the authorities blame communist rebels.

On August 1, Mrs. Arroyo gave police 10 weeks to solve the killings of 10 activists and journalists. The deadline has now expired, and the police say they did their job.

Their task force, Usig, which investigated the cases, arrested at least 12 suspects and filed 21 charges. The police now consider the cases solved.

Congressman Teodoro Casino, a member of the leftist Bayan Muna party, says the probe was not a genuine attempt to solve the crimes and the police should not close cases until they secure a conviction.

"It's a way to divert attention from the state security forces that are suspected in these killings," he said. "And the way the justice system works in the Philippines, it is so easy for the authorities to file a case against any person, and then declare that the case is solved. And in the end, that person might be acquitted. But there is obviously a rush to meet this deadline and we think in that rush the objective of the authorities was to show that they have been doing something."

The Bayan Muna party features prominently in the controversy. It says more than 100 of its members have been killed since Mrs. Arroyo took office.

Congressman Casino says investigations like the one that wound up this week do not get to the right people and typically scapegoat leftists or minor crooks.

"They really have to get in touch with the families of the victims, and the witnesses and the groups that are involved in these cases. Because what happens is that the task force formed by Mrs. Arroyo does not really go to these families," he said. "The impression is that they are filing these cases left and right, and somehow the state security forces, who are the main suspects of the witnesses and families, are not being charged in court."

But National Police Chief Oscar Calderon rejects accusations of bias. He says that investigators do question police and military suspects, as well as the Communist New People's Army, or NPA. members. But he acknowledges that it is difficult to get information from witnesses and victims' families.

"Some of the killings are attributed to the purging of the ranks of the NPA," he said. "Some of the suspects are members of the NPA themselves. Some of the suspects are also from the police and military and we are able to present them. But when we interview victims of the family they are closed-mouthed, not giving information. But the best evidence is the statement of the witnesses, which we do not have at present. So we have difficulty in investigating cases involving militant killings."

Philippine human rights group Karapatan also doubts the validity of the inquiry. Spokeswoman Ruth Cervantes says the probe is really a public relations exercise.

"We feel that task force Usig was really created, not to really investigate and solve this spate of political killings and enforced disappearances that are happening in the country. But more of something to show, because there is tremendous public pressure for the Philippines government to address these concerns," she said.

Besides the Usig task force President Arroyo has also created a body called the Melo Commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court justice, to probe deaths and disappearances that appear politically motivated.

On a recent trip, she also invited European nations to send rights groups to monitor the action taken on the killings.

"I have also encouraged the Melo Commission to reach out to the NGO community to help shape our response to these killings. And I look forward to these meetings with the international community because I would like to bring this sad chapter to a close," she said.

Two top military figures have testified before the Melo Commission, military chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon, and recently retired General Jovito Palparan, whom leftists allege allowed his troops to assassinate peasant leaders and other left-wing activists. Both denied any military involvement in the killings and blamed communist rebels. President Arroyo singled out General Palparan for praise in her annual national address in July.

Analysts say Mrs. Arroyo is pulled in two directions. She is under heavy international and domestic pressure to do something about the killings. But she is reluctant to alienate the military with aggressive investigations, because it helped save her from a coup plot this year, and she needs it to eradicate communist rebels.