Human rights groups have condemned Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for praising 17 army special-forces men for their involvement in the killing of seven young Muslims. The president awarded medals to the wounded soldiers at a military hospital in the town of Jolo, Sulu province, in a Sept. 24 visit that was described as a "strictly military affair." The soldiers were injured after a reported clash between troops and fighters from the Abu Sayyaf terror group in the town of Patikul on Sept. 14. The military maintained that there was an armed encounter with about 100 terrorist gunmen. Human right groups said, however, that the seven young men killed were not part of the terror group and were caught up in the fighting. Their relatives denied they were members of Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group. The families maintained that those who died were fruit pickers working on a nearby farm. Bishop Antonio Ablon of the Philippine Independent Church
described the incident as a "massacre", adding that the men were "summarily executed" by the soldiers. Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, spokesman of the military's Western Mindanao Command, insisted that the seven men were terrorists killed in a "legitimate military operation." Jerome Succor Aba, chairman of the Voice of the Bangsamoro group, said Duterte's visit to the wounded soldiers was a "desperate attempt to wash the blood off the hands of the soldiers." Aba said martial law across the southern Philippines had "emboldened state forces to commit violence against the Bangsamoro people." The Human Rights Commission in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has expressed "grave concern" over the safety of people in Sulu province following the killings. Commission chairman, Abdulnasser Badrudin, said "the incident shows an excessive use of military authority and failure to exercise due diligence." He reminded the government that the right to life continues to be inviolable even during military operations and martial law. The Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy
, a Muslim think tank in Manila, called for an investigation into the incident.
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Amina Rasul, its president, said the government should "act proactively" and address violent extremism, "bearing in mind potential problems with the implementation of martial law." The organization urged Duterte to review martial law in Mindanao and investigate reported human rights violations not just in Sulu but in other parts of the region. On Sept. 25, human rights group Karapatan
reported that a female human rights defender was killed in Maguindanao province on Sept. 23. Mariam Uy Acob, 43, a paralegal from the Kawagib Moro Human Rights Alliance, was gunned down by suspected agents of the military, Karapatan said in a statement. The human rights group described Acob as a "staunch critic of militarization in Moro communities" who "consistently denounced aerial bombardment and encampment in communities."