Philippines - 2006 worst year for rights since Marcos

Manila--- Political murders in the Philippines reached their highest level in 2006 since the toppling of dictator Ferdinand Marcos more than 20 years ago, human-rights activists say.

More than 180 activists—including journalists, human-rights workers, leftwing politicians, trade unionists and lawyers—were assassinated this year for their criticism of those in power, they say.

“An average of three extrajudicial killings are occurring every week in the country,” a Canadian human-rights team concluded recently after a fact-finding mission to the Southeast Asian nation.

“A clear pattern of state-perpetrated politically motivated extrajudicial killings” was occurring in the country, the team said.

President Arroyo and her top aides have dismissed their report as propaganda to serve the country’s communist insurgents who have been fighting a Maoist war for four decades to seize power.

But local human-rights group Karapatan says it has recorded 185 such killings in 2006, the highest number since the regime of Marcos, renowned for his brutal suppression of critics and ousted in 1986.

The sheer number has alarmed the European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Roman Catholic Church, all of which have called on Arroyo to take action to stop the bloodshed.

Archbishop Antonio Ledes ma, vice-president of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference in this largely Roman Catholic country, said action must be taken irrespective of who was behind them.

“In the past, there were allegations of killings from the left and the right but regardless of which end of the political spectrum is responsible, public authorities should be even-handed in trying to resolve them,” he told AFP.

Opposition Rep. Roilo Golez warned the “murderous year” was undermining democracy, in a nation with a history of coups and dictatorships.

The most high-profile murder came December 16 when Rep. Luis Bersamin Jr., an ally of Arroyo representing the northern province of Abra, was shot dead along with his security aide outside a church in a Manila suburb.

Police say they have a witness who has linked Abra Gov. Vicente Valera to the killing. Valera has denied responsibility, saying he and Bersamin were longtime allies.

Earlier senior government lawyer Nestor Ballacillo was shot dead along with his son also in a Manila suburb. Police said they had arrested a suspect.

In response to the bloodshed, Arroyo has ordered an increase in the visibility of police and for officers to work closer with communities.

She has also set up a special commission to determine who are behind the slayings which has yet to report its findings.

Military and police officials have blamed at least some of the deaths on an internal purge or factional fighting within the 7,100-strong Communist Party’s New People’s Army.

The military, whose officers have also been accused of some of the killings, claim the overall numbers are bloated.

For its part, the New People’s Army has admitted carrying out purges in the past but has largely denied it is behind the latest spate.

Blaming the communists and establishing a commission have failed to ease fears among many Filipinos about their own safety.