An international human rights delegation says it has found many human rights violations against separatist rebels in southern Philippines and that the joint military exercises with U.S. special forces will not solve the problem. Philippine officials reject the charges and say there is considerable popular support for the U.S. presence.
The delegation made the charges Thursday after a four-day visit to Basilan island where Philippine troops are pursuing rebels of the Abu Sayyaf group that has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Delegation leader Walden Bello says the group spoke with some of the 92 prisoners there who are suspected of links to the Abu Sayyaf. "They claimed they had been subjected to electrocution by the southern command of the Philippines military and they were in rather overcrowded conditions and that the warrants for the arrest of a large number of these people had not been made, despite the fact that they had been in jail now for seven months," he said.
The international delegation also condemned Abu Sayyaf atrocities that include kidnapping, rape and beheading. But Professor Bello urged the authorities to respect civil rights, or risk causing greater sympathy for the rebels among people who feel they cannot find justice within the system.
The activist said his group found a deep divide between Muslim and Christian communities in the region. As a result, he said, the presence of U.S. troops on Basilan to train Philippine soldiers pursuing the Abu Sayyaf will not solve the problem. "There is a certain social base to the Abu Sayyaf and bringing in U.S. advisers is not going to address this issue of cutting off the Abu Sayyaf from the social base," he said. "Only a political solution does that."
The Philippine government has rejected the findings of the commission. Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao questioned the objectivity of the delegation, saying Professor Bello is a known ideologue. "Mr. Walden Bello and his group would seem to be biased," said Rigoberto Tiglao. "They found what they wanted to look for and their findings weren't all that surprising. But we have to emphasize that our Commission on Human Rights has been closely monitoring any violations of human rights in the area."
Mr. Tiglao acknowledged arrest warrants were sometimes delayed because of the military operations, but he assured the group that those detained were being charged.
And the spokesman said the joint exercises by Philippine and U.S. troops, called Balikatan, are supported by most people in the country. "Nearly all surveys have shown that more than 80 percent of Filipinos support Balikatan," he said. "Nearly every political leader of note in Basilan and the Zamboanga area have sent President Macapagal Arroyo written resolutions supporting the Balikatan exercises."
The presidential spokesman says leaders from other parts of the country have also written asking that future exercises be staged in their regions. The exercises, which include social services and development projects for local populations, are due to last six months. The Philippine government says it is considering other joint missions under a bilateral agreement signed three years ago.