The 'wheel of torture' discovered by human rights groups in a detention facility in the Philippine province of Laguna (Photo courtesy of Commission on Human Rights)
Who would ever imagine that a secret torture squad attached to the Philippine National Police would use a crudely made “wheel of fortune” to select the torture technique they would use on their victims?
Torture is outlawed by international conventions and the Philippine Penal Code. In 2009, a special law, Republic Act 9745, was passed to completely ban the practice. However, torture is still commonly used here.
An investigative report by Amnesty International released in January stated that police torture "is commonplace in the Philippines and impunity for it is the norm".
Titled "Above the Law: Police Torture in the Philippines," the report uncovered secret detention centers and the notorious "Wheel of Fortune" in a torture chamber in Laguna province, south of Manila.
The shocking discovery indicated that this trained squad used torture for a sordid and sick kind of entertainment. While the suspects screamed from the excruciating pain of electric shocks, the torturers laughed.
Last week’s US Senate report on CIA torture and disappearances of suspects detailed shocking abuse. Many of the torture techniques detailed in the report are similar to what the Philippine police use. The Philippine police trained in Fort Bragg and elsewhere in the US very well may have learned their torture techniques from their US trainers. We sincerely hope not.
As many as 43 prisoner survivors, some rescued by Filipino human rights campaigners who risked their lives to help the victims, said they suffered grave torture and abuse. At least 23 of them were courageous and defiant enough to file criminal charges against the police.
There is not much hope among them that justice will ever be seen.
The police enjoy a high level of impunity and suspects have been known to be killed by death squads. Such squads are set up by the military and local mayors, governors and other powerful politicians to protect their interests, eliminate political rivals or protect their secret criminal enterprises from take-over. They also sow terror among the people and ensure the re-election of politicians.
In May 2014, Human Rights Watch published a 71-page report titled "One Shot to the Head: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines.” It documented interviews with the killers who said they received text messages from the former mayor providing execution orders. In return for this service, they were paid — sometimes as little as US$100 per kill.
This week, on December 11, we honor Rogelio Butalid, a broadcast commentator who was shot at point blank range outside his radio station in Tagum City, Mindanao. Butalid is just one of many journalists murdered over the past ten years by death squads.
No one has been held responsible or accountable for the many deaths. Human rights advocates are calling for a law to hold local mayors responsible and culpable. They will be penalized by being removed from office for gross incompetency and dereliction of duty for torture and death squad killings in their town or city.
The Amnesty report quoted as many as 55 torture victim-survivors. Twenty-one of them were children when abused and tortured. At least two of the victims were shot and left for dead, but miraculously survived.
As many as 36 cases were referred to the Philippine Office of the Ombudsman but unsurprisingly none were indicted. The investigating officers were likely to have been threatened with a "shot to the head".
The survivors of torture reported having been beaten, kicked, punched, water-boarded, nearly suffocated with plastic bags over their heads, subjected to electric shock, deprived of sleep and forced to hold stressful physical positions. In one video, an old man was seen naked with wire tied around his genitalia being pulled by a police officer. The victim was later found beheaded.
Children too have been tortured, starved and killed in jails and prisons that are renamed "Juvenile Homes" where the children are neglected, abused, mistreated and jailed behind bars and metal screens.
A shocking and horrible photo of abused children that surfaced in October was taken in the government’s Manila Reception Action Center, a place described as an Auschwitz-like concentration camp in the heart of Manila, just five minutes from the office of the city mayor. The photo is that of a boy we named Francisco. His naked, emaciated skeletal body was thrown on the ground, allegedly left to die without medical help. He was found with facial bruises when rescued by social workers.
The excuse of the center's staff is that they had no money to help the boy. That is a lie and fabrication. It's a storyline to get more money, which is disappearing in mysterious ways. Other children too were left in similar conditions.
It is difficult to comprehend how humans can inflict such terrible, cruel torture. The psychological torture of threats and fear is equally abhorrent. One thing is clear: we cannot remain inactive, silent, non-supportive and indifferent to these grim realities exposed by children's rights and human rights defenders.
The truth is there for all to see and read. We have to act as best we can to save more victims and put an end to these evil practices. We can help by speaking out, joining campaigns for human rights, joining a rally, by taking a stand with victims of illegal detention and children in confinement.
We can inspire others by showing respect for the rights of others. That’s what Jesus did and taught. That's why we have Christmas.
Irish Columban Fr Shay Cullen established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.