Forensics for Human Rights
September 2, 2009
Raymond Manalo was napping when they came in combat boots and ski masks on Valentine’s Day in February of 2006. He had a date that night with his girlfriend. He never made it. The men entered the house, punched Raymond in the stomach and demanded to know the whereabouts of his brother Bestre, whom they accused of being a member of the communist New People’s Army. They didn’t get the information they wanted, so they took Raymond and his brother Reynaldo instead, handcuffing and blindfolding them as they were shoved into a vehicle where they were driven hours away. Eighteen months later, having faced torture, witnessed executions, and been threatened with death themselves, the brothers escaped.
In the Philippines, the vindication of human rights is often stymied by a thick fog of impunity that protects public officials. Incomplete investigations and frightened, reluctant witnesses make prosecutions rare, and mostly unsuccessful. With Reynaldo and Raymond’s survival and escape, human rights advocates were now presented with a rare asset in the prosecution of human rights crimes: a live witness to, and victim of, brutality.
Lovella “Beh” de Castro is head of the documentation unit at Karapatan, a human rights organizations in the Philippines. In the course of her work, she receives and verifies reports of human rights violations, often in heavily militarized areas where gathering records is both difficult and dangerous. She relies on interviews with witnesses, victims, and, in cases of massacre, doctors and coroners who handled the bodies. De Castro says investigations by human rights NGOs are crucial in the Philippines. There are those who even believe that the police – the very people citizens turn to for protection from violence – often cover up crimes committed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. If human rights crimes are to be investigated, de Castro believes the work must be done by the victims themselves, and by people like her.
So when Karapatan got involved with Manalo’s case toward the end of 2008, they knew that conducting a thorough investigation was critical. Fortunately, says de Castro, she had recently attended investigation forensics training conducted by the Equipo Peruano de Antropologia Forense (EPAF or the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team). At the training, de Castro learned what she calls the basics of investigation, such as how to carefully document a crime scene so that evidence gathered meets the standard for prosecution.
She also took to heart the urging of the lecturer, Peruvian Jose Pablo Baraybar, an expert forensic anthropologist, to pay attention to every detail and not discount anything.
Because of this, she noticed that the description Manalo gave in one of his affidavits of the military camp did not match that of the current military camp in the municipality he identified. Rather than squander time and resources conducting an investigation at the wrong camp, she used the details of Manalo’s affidavit to deduce the location of the camp where Manalo had actually been held.
It was now abandoned and overgrown, but the Karapatan team was able to confirm the spot as a former military camp with local residents. However, none were willing to sign sworn statements. The team’s ability to painstakingly document evidence was therefore essential to confirming Manalo’s story, which they hoped would lead to the discovery of other victims. Manalo believes that six to eight people were killed at the site.
The team began documenting the site using the practices de Castro had learned, such as precise labeling and including geographic indicators with photographs. They gathered enough evidence to convince the Philippine’s official Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to work with them on a two-day excavation.
Prior to the arrival of CHR and the two accompanying archeologists, de Castro was in charge of beginning the work with the Manalo and the Karapatan team. She was nervous, having never led an excavation team, but says she was able to draw on the skills she learned at the forensics training. She profiled the site again with the witness, noting important locations. She instructed the team to measure and mark off the area, taking care to stick to her training’s emphasis on precision and detail. When the lawyers and archeologists arrived with CHR, they noted her team’s good work.
Over the course of the two-day investigation, the team collected five to 10 Ziploc bags of what the archeologists said was burnt human bone, though it was chemically unidentifiable since it was carbonized.
The complicated legal case for the kidnapping of Raymond Manalo is still ongoing, but de Castro feels confident that the evidence they have gathered is much stronger than is usual in the prosecution of human rights abuses. She believes that trainings as in forensics have a discernable impact on NGO capacity to seek justice for victims. De Castro feels it’s crucial for human rights supporters to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to verify and document human rights abuses, because their credibility is often under attack.
De Castro sees hope for the future of human rights in the Philippines, though. “Culturally we Filipinos are a very happy people. We don’t tolerate injustice. There’s an optimism we have; it’s a cheerful life.”
She finds trainings like the one she attended feed this sense of optimism and purposefulness, saying, “No matter how morbid the work, we are being empowered.”
Kayleen Hartman was recently an intern with The Asia Foundation’s Human Rights and Law Team in the Philippines. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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