At least 145 political prisoners, including possible prisoners of conscience, remained in detention. Detainees continued to be tortured and ill-treated during interrogation. The incidence of human rights violations in the context of counter-insurgency continued to decline, but at least four possible "disappearances" were reported and at least nine people were alleged to have been extrajudicially executed. More than 400 people were sentenced to death. Armed opposition groups were responsible for human rights abuses.

In June President Joseph Estrada took office after elections in May. He identified as his government's priorities law and order and the improvement of conditions for the poor.

In March the government and the National Democratic Front, representing the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), initialled a draft accord on human rights, the first of a four-stage agenda designed to lead to a comprehensive peace agreement. President Estrada approved the accord in August, but disagreements over its implementation and the proposed release of political prisoners delayed further peace negotiations. Local cease-fire agreements between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the southern island of Mindanao broke down for periods throughout the year. Recurrent fighting impeded intermittent peace talks, and the two sides made limited progress towards a general peace agreement.

At least 145 political prisoners, including possible prisoners of conscience, remained in detention at the end of the year. Most of the political detainees were held on criminal charges, particularly illegal possession of firearms, robbery and murder, which had allegedly occurred within the context of the CPP-NPA insurgency. The majority had not been convicted by the end of the year. In December President Estrada approved a new amnesty proclamation, subject to congressional approval, which extended until March 1997 the period in which crimes committed by communist or Muslim secessionist rebels could be considered "politically motivated" and therefore eligible for consideration by the National Amnesty Commission (NAC). In December the nac announced that it had granted nearly 11,000 amnesty applications since 1994, including those put forward by former communist, Muslim and rightist military rebels.

Torture and ill-treatment of people detained for alleged involvement in insurgency continued. In February, two farmers, Eric Carculan and Pepito Carculan, belonging to the Mangyan indigenous community in Occidental Mindoro province, were accused by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Scout Rangers of being NPA members. The soldiers allegedly beat the two men repeatedly, tied plastic bags over their heads to restrict their breathing, and submerged them in a stream to coerce them to reveal the location of an NPA camp. Ordinary criminal suspects were also ill-treated or tortured in order to coerce confessions or implicate other alleged accomplices, particularly while held in Philippine National Police (pnp) cells during the initial interrogation period. Methods reported included beating with fists and gun butts, and the placing of plastic bags over the head to restrict breathing.

Levels of grave human rights violations occurring within the context of counter-insurgency operations continued a gradual decline, but at least four possible "disappearances" and at least nine possible extrajudicial executions allegedly carried out by members of the security forces were reported. For example, in December Danilo Caisip and Jayson Nieva were taken into custody by district officials in Batangas province on suspicion of being NPA members. They were reportedly handed over to a pnp Mobile Force Company in Nasugbu town, but pnp officers subsequently denied any knowledge of the arrest. The two men's whereabouts remained unknown. In a possible extrajudicial execution, Roberto Bornales was shot dead in an alleged armed encounter with AFP Marines in Palawan province in October. Roberto Bornales' companion, Abe Sungit, who claimed the shooting was unprovoked, was reportedly beaten after his arrest.

Human rights abuses in the context of land disputes and the demolition of poor residential areas included deliberate and arbitrary killings, harassment and ill-treatment. They were carried out throughout the year by unidentified armed men and private security guards, at times with the apparent connivance and collusion of local officials and members of the security forces. In February and March respectively farmers Marcelito Cacal and Arnulfo Banares went missing and were later found dead in San Francisco district, Quezon province. Local residents claimed the killings were linked to a land dispute and that the murders involved the collusion of AFP members.

More than 400 people were sentenced to death. The date for the first execution since 1976, that of house painter Leo Pilo Echegaray, was set for early 1999. Since the death penalty was restored in December 1993 at least 850 people have been sentenced to death for a range of crimes. Reports of the continued use of torture and ill-treatment to coerce confessions from some suspects accused of capital crimes heightened concern over the risk of judicial error in death penalty cases.

Armed opposition groups were responsible for human rights abuses. Members of Muslim armed groups, including the MILF, Abu Sayyaf and renegade members of the Moro National Liberation Front, continued to take civilians hostage and to carry out deliberate and arbitrary killings. In July the MILF reportedly executed by firing squad a man convicted of murder by the group's Shari‘a courts.

In March an Amnesty International delegation, accompanied by four relatives of crime victims and the parents of a death-row inmate from the usa, visited the Philippines to participate in a campaign by local anti-death penalty groups against a resumption of executions. During the year Amnesty International called on President Estrada to exercise clemency for prisoners whose death sentences had been confirmed by the Supreme Court, including a deaf-mute prisoner who appeared not to have understood his trial's proceedings. It also called on the government to abolish the death penalty and to launch an independent inquiry into allegations of ill-treatment and torture of criminal suspects by police. In May Amnesty International expressed concern for the safety of a lawyer who had received death threats related to his involvement in the prosecution of pnp officers linked to the extrajudicial execution of 11 bank robbers (see Amnesty International Report 1998). In December it called on the authorities to act immediately to guarantee the safety of two men who had reportedly "disappeared".

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.