Notes from the Field

From the Philippines: Forensic Investigation of Human Rights Abuses

June 10, 2009

For almost three years, Erlinda Cadapan has been searching for her daughter, Sherlyn. A student of the University of the Philippines, Sherlyn was abducted in June 2006 with another female student and a farmer in Bulacan, a province a few hours north of Manila. Like any mother longing for her child, Erlinda has been exhausting all means to find her daughter. Camp searches, court petitions, advocacy meetings, and exhumations have become part of her grueling daily routine. She would rather face her daughter’s death than live in complete uncertainty about what happened to her. In 2008, when Erlinda heard that authorities in Pangasinan Province found a corpse of a woman of similar build as Sherlyn, she insisted on recovering the body. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), along with a human rights organization, conducted an exhumation. But upon investigation, they found the remains were of another young woman, not Sherlyn.

Erlinda is among the hundreds of mothers and relatives of desaparecidos who are in a devastating, never-ending quest to find their loved ones. In their situation, investigations that provide leads, searches, and exhumations that could eventually direct them to their missing kin are paramount. Unfortunately, relatives of the missing cannot confidently rely on the authorities to assist them. Security forces are often implicated in the commission of abuses. Cognizant that the state cannot renege from its primary duty of protecting guaranteed rights and freedoms, the 1987 Constitution aptly created the Commission on Human Rights as an independent body to investigate, report, and monitor human right violations.

With extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the CHR faces a host of challenges in effectively carrying out its mandated tasks. Foremost is the institution’s lack of capacity to conduct quality investigations. At most, CHR personnel have a modicum of knowledge of investigative techniques, but not to a level where evidence gathered can stand the scrutiny of prosecutors who determine probable cause and judges adjudicating cases. Like the police, CHR investigators usually rely solely on witness depositions to build a case. But courts easily question the credibility of testimonial evidence for being subjective accounts of individuals who may not wish to be truthful or fear being so. Since forces accused of killings can also be responsible for their security, witnesses are highly vulnerable. Some witnesses simply refuse to cooperate to protect their family from becoming the next victim. Given the threats to witnesses, and the sometimes untrustworthy motives of others, it is imperative that scientifically verifiable forensic evidence complement testimonial accounts. CHR investigators must therefore be adept in applying sound forensic science in their investigations.

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During forensic training, CHR investigators carefully remove soil from the grave to expose buried dummies.

With support from the United States Agency for International Development and the Australian Agency for International Development, The Asia Foundation and the CHR recently organized a series of Forensic Trainings for CHR Investigators. Dr. Jose Pablo Baraybar, expert forensic anthropologist from the Equipo Peruano de Antropologia Forense (EPAF or the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team), led four batches of rigorous trainings for 133 CHR investigators, medical doctors, regional directors, and lawyers. Each session opened with classroom lectures on how to scientifically and systematically document and analyze incidents of human rights abuses. Gruesome photos of dead bodies and recovered bones from EPAF’s missions in Peru and Kosovo augmented the discussions.

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Using basic tools, trainers demonstrate techniques for proper measurement and documentation of a gravesite.

Field work activities were a highlight of the three-day training. EPAF set up simulated incidents of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances using straw dummies. EPAF also dug a grave for an exhumation exercise. Participants were divided into teams to investigate. No hi-tech equipment was used to make the simulations as close as possible to third-world reality. Participants thus used ribbons to cordon off the crime scenes, improvised flags to mark evidence – and used disposable gloves and paper bags to handle artifacts, ordinary shovels to exhume bodies, and measuring tape to triangulate and draw the scenes. Just like any real-life mission, participants completed their work under the scorching sun and heavy rains. CHR Chairperson Leila de Lima and the other Commissioners, clad in their working shirts and pants, actively joined their teams in the exercise.

The trainings culminated with a presentation of the participants’ findings. The teams recovered bullet casings and other material evidence from the simulated sites. Based on their investigations, they reconstructed what had probably happened and identified possible perpetrators. EPAF and other teams critiqued each group’s findings. Their evaluation underscored the need to follow careful, step-by-step procedures to keep the crime scene secure, strategize the investigation process, thoroughly and patiently recover evidence, systematically organize the evidence, and logically draw evidence-backed conclusions. The hands-on experience allowed participants to learn new forensic techniques and simultaneously unlearn outdated investigation practices.

With the recently-concluded training, victims of human rights abuses have another reason for hope in their quest for justice. They deserve no less than prompt and thorough independent investigations that will gather solid proof to nail down perpetrators.

Erlinda continues her search for Sherlyn. She, and many others, look forward to a Commission on Human Rights that is armed with forensic capabilities to produce accurate and prosecution-ready reports of about violations committed against their loved ones.

Damcelle Cortes is an Asia Foundation Program Officer in the Philippines. She can be reached at damcellet@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Damcelle Cortes

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