Amnesty Intl urges quick end to martial law in Philippine province, says human rights at risk

By Teresa Cerojano, AP
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Amnesty urges quick end to Philippine martial law

MANILA, Philippines — Amnesty International called on the Philippine government Tuesday to end martial law soon in a southern province, where troops cracked down on a powerful clan and its armed supporters blamed for the massacre of 57 people.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last week declared military rule in Maguindanao province, allowing government forces to arrest members of the Ampatuan clan without court warrants and order some 2,400 loyalists to surrender their weapons.

Air force helicopters dropped thousands of leaflets Tuesday urging the Ampatuan clan followers to surrender and give up their firearms. Two government OV-10 bomber planes zoomed across Maguindanao to remind the outlaws what they face if they don’t surrender, army Col. Leo Ferrer said.

“It’s what we call a persuasion flight,” Ferrer said. “We want to show the groups which will refuse to disarm what they will face.”

The Ampatuans, who had forged a political alliance with Arroyo and ruled the impoverished province unopposed for years, are the main suspects in the Nov. 23 ambush on an election rival’s convoy that included 30 journalists and their staff.

On the day martial law was announced Saturday, troops and police arrested Andal Ampatuan Sr., the family patriarch, and more than 20 others, including his sons and relatives. Beside murder, prosecutors plan to file rebellion charges against them for allegedly fomenting armed resistance — a justification for martial law proclamation, Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera said.

A human rights lawyers’ organization, a former Senate president and three other groups challenged the proclamation, asking the Supreme Court on Monday to throw it out, arguing the law and order breakdown in Maguindanao did not amount to a rebellion.

The court on Tuesday ordered the government to comment on the petitions in five days, court spokeswoman Gleo Guerra said.

The court also granted the government’s request to transfer the venue for the trial from the southern region to a court in suburban Quezon city. Justice Department officials have expressed concerns for the security of witnesses.

Amnesty International urged authorities to “develop a quick and clear timetable” to end martial law and dismantle the country’s armed paramilitary groups.

“Fundamental human rights, including the right to challenge the legality of detention, must not be violated or restricted under any circumstances,” a statement said.

Sam Zarifi, an Amnesty International official who had visited Maguindanao, said he found no evidence of serious violations by military personnel since the imposition of martial law, but that some 70 people had been arrested without warrants.

He said more than 2,000 residents fled their homes because of military deployments.

The government says troops and police are respecting human rights and that all those arrested will be brought to trial. It did not give a timetable for lifting martial law. The constitution says the law can be in affect for 60 days unless it is revoked, shortened or extended by Congress.

Arroyo’s proclamation is the first use of military rule in the Philippines since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared it nationwide more than 30 years ago.

On Wednesday, Congress will convene to discuss the measure and is expected to approve it because Arroyo’s allies dominate the lower house.

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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