President Benigno Aquino III made an egregious mistake two weeks ago when he appointed a recently retired police general, Lina Castillo Sarmiento, to chair the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board. He has since defended the appointment, offering a cluster of reasons why Sarmiento was right for the job. Sarmiento has also asked her critics to give her a chance at proving them wrong. But the appointment remains a mistake. If the President is loath to change his mind, it is up to Sarmiento to provide the urgent, necessary remedy: She should resign.
The appointment is wrong on several levels.
First, the landmark measure providing for reparation and recognition of the martial law regime’s many human rights victims, Republic Act No. 10368, became law last year; it took Malacañang 12 months to form the claims board. Given the lateness of the hour, the President owed it to the victims and their families to do everything right, not to present them with yet another problem.
Second, placing a career official from the Philippine National Police (formerly the Philippine Constabulary/Integrated National Police) at the head of the claims board sends the wrong signals, to both victim and victimizer. The PC/INP was notorious for human rights abuses. Even if Sarmiento can claim, as she has already claimed, that she has never been accused of any human rights violation throughout her career, the simple fact is she achieved career success in an institution with a record of human rights violations.
Third, and most important: RA 10368 lists four specific qualifications that members of the claims board should possess, and Sarmiento fails the most crucial one. Section 8 reads: “There is hereby created an independent and quasi-judicial body to be known as the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board … It shall be composed of nine (9) members, who shall possess the following qualifications …. (b) Must have a deep and thorough understanding and knowledge of human rights and involvement in efforts against human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos.”
That second phrase says it all: Sarmiento, who joined the police force in 1980, at the height (or the depths) of military rule, cannot claim “involvement in efforts against human rights violations” committed at that time. She may have risen to the rank of director, the equivalent of major general, and headed the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office late in her career, but there is no showing that, during the Marcos years, when she was still new in the force, she was fighting back against human rights violations.
We wish to be clear: We are not suggesting that Sarmiento was a violator, only that there is no evidence that she was involved in “efforts against” human rights violations then.
If there were evidence, the President would surely have adverted to it. But in defending Sarmiento’s appointment, he offered only a curious cocktail of reasons: she had the “necessary physical ability to be able to complete the job in two years,” the maturity “to fend off those who would want to sabotage what this law intends to do,” the experience of handling human rights issues and the support of officials of the Department of Justice and the Commission on Human Rights. “So, she has the skill, she has the physical energy, she has the drive, she has the right direction to be able to accomplish the job in two years or less,” he said. Maybe, but she still does not meet the requirement clearly spelled out in Section 8 (b).
Other members of the board have a better claim to the chairmanship under the President’s criteria; he could have named former Constitutional Commissioner Jose Luis Martin Gascon, for instance, and there would have been no controversy. This suggests that perhaps the real reason the President named Sarmiento lies in that notion of sabotage: that she could “fend off those who would want to sabotage what this law intends to do.”
But who is the President referring to? There were fears heard during the long struggle to pass the law that victims associated with or sympathetic to the National Democratic Front would use the reparation money to suspicious ends. This seems to us unlikely; it also raises the question of presidential limits: Why does the President have a say in how the money will be used? But all these complications obscure the new fact: The controversy over Sarmiento’s appointment amounts to a kind of sabotage, too.
If Sarmiento has the victims’ interest at heart, she should do the honorable thing and resign.
19 October 2010
Letter to the Editor
Dear editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer,
We extend our gratitude to and commend the Philippine Daily Inquirer for your editorial dated October 17, entitled “Free.” Being firm and standing up for the immediate release of Morong 43 is brave enough to inspire us and our families. You have looked into our plight and condition, even though we are not as prominent and media-exposed as the Magdalo soldiers. You have grasped our situation, sentiments and concerns, though we have been “hidden away from the public.”
Eight months in detention was never easy for us. We still bear the pain and suffering since the day we were illegally arrested. For 36 hours (48 hours for some), we were handcuffed, blindfolded and tortured, physically and psychologically. These experiences of human rights violations can never be forgotten. As health workers who voluntarily gave service even to far-flung communities, we helped in providing health care services to our poor countrymen. Yet the past administration’s desperation to produce “captured NPAs” had victimized us and thousands of other individuals and families critical to former Pres. Arroyo’s anti-people policies.
As we are heading for our ninth month in detention, we appeal to the Aquino administration to be truthful and sincere in giving justice to the Morong 43 and all political prisoners. To rectify the errors should mean freeing us unconditionally and immediately. We also call on our senators and congressmen to uphold justice and call for our release. In our struggle to be free, we aks for the continued support in all forms of the different media organizations, local and international human rights organizations, churchpeople and people in the communities. Your genuine concern to our hardships and suffering proves to be our armor in continuing this fight for freedom and justice.
Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan Taguig