A severed hand being taken away by a dog after bombing operations. A pregnant activist under intense military interrogation and forced to identify the father of the baby in her womb, yelling, “Andres Bonifacio!” A drinking straw inserted into a victim’s penis.
Many cases and stories leap out of the pages as painful remembrances, others sound simple and direct but are written in detail, still others appear to be “copy and paste.”
Poring over, evaluating and deciding on tens of thousands of stories about cruelty, suffering and loss during the martial law years is a difficult and heartbreaking task. Establishing the authenticity of supporting documents and witnesses’ accounts goes with it. Just as difficult is setting monetary reparation for each proven case.
But the task has to be fulfilled because a law, although almost 30 years too late, has been passed requiring that a form of justice be dispensed with.
On Feb. 25, 2013, President Aquino signed Republic Act No. 10368, or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act, “providing for reparation and recognition of victims of human rights violations during the Marcos regime, documentation of said violations, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes.”
By May 2015, a total of 75,730 persons have filed in the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB) their claims as human rights violations victims (HRVVs) of martial rule (1972-1986), or as next of kin of victims who have suffered, died or disappeared during those dark years under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Besides filling out forms and submitting documents of proof, individual claimants had to submit a narrative of what they had undergone in the hands of martial law enforcers, mainly military and police elements.
The number of claimants ballooned after the period to file claims (May 12 to Nov. 10, 2014) was extended by six months. The work of the HRVCB became even heavier and will take longer.
Under the law, HRVVs are to be classified as 1) victims who died or have disappeared and are still missing, 2) victims who were tortured, or raped or sexually abused, 3) victims who were detained and 4) all other victims. Each category is given a range of points that will correspond to the reparation amount.
The HRVCB chair, Lina Sarmiento, a retired police director, said that utmost care had been given every case to assure justice for the genuine victims. These mean some dubious claims have to be weeded out.
“We do not want to use the word fraudulent,” Sarmiento told the Inquirer. “We liberally interpret in favor of the claimant.” But she also stressed that the board always had “the benefit of the legitimate claimants” in mind.
The breakdown of claims filed is as follows: main office (16,895), regional desks (26,088), caravans (32,659), abroad (90). Claims filed in the first filing period (47,128), extension period (28,602).
Next to the caravans, Metro Manila yielded the most number of claimants (16,895), followed by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (2,763) and Tuguegarao City (2,351).
Places listed in the report are the sites where claims were filed and received, not necessarily where the abuses were committed. Interestingly, some places yielded more claims during the extension or second filing period as compared with the original filing period.
The HRVCB is composed of Sarmiento, Doctors Erlinda Senturias and Aurora Parong, and lawyers Byron Bocar, Wilfred Asis, Galuasch G. Ballaho, Glenda T. Litong and Jacqueline Mejia. Jose Luis Gascon left the board after he was appointed chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a couple of months ago.
The board is divided into three divisions. Each division meets for a whole day twice or thrice a week to decide on cases. The divisions are supported by lawyers and paralegals who read, check the details and write summaries. They also refer to supporting data, many of these coming from the Task Force Detainees-Philippines (TFDP), a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines.
The TFDP documented thousands of human rights violations cases and helped detainees and their families during the martial law years. If not for TFDP’s files, many HRVVs would have difficulty proving their cases.
And thanks to computer technology, the HRVCB staff can easily access cases across divisions. Names, events and places can be checked and counterchecked for truth and accuracy. Someone’s independent account can bolster somebody else’s. Even news reports and articles written during that time can lend proof.
A total of P10 billion allotted for the HRVVs’ reparation was sourced from the Marcoses’ hidden and stolen wealth recovered by the government from their Switzerland accounts.
Separately, P500 million has been allotted for the building of a memorial museum to be supervised by the CHR and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. The museum has yet to be built. The money is still with the national treasury.
The Philippine government’s P10 billion for reparation is distinct and separate from the $2 billion (almost P90 billion) won in a Hawaii court after more than 9,000 HRVVs filed a class suit against the Marcos estate in 1994. Alas, more than 2,000 claimants had been delisted. The awarded amount comes in batches and is dependent on hidden stash discovered abroad by the claimants’ American lawyers.
Those already on the Hawaii class suit list enjoy “conclusive presumption,” which means they would be approved as claimants under RA 10368 as long as they have filed claims with the HRVCB.
Senturias said talk about claimants getting 80 percent more in reparation was plain misinformation.
The HRVCB operates on a P50 million yearly operational budget, Sarmiento said. This is not enough because the number of claimants dramatically increased during the extension period, therefore more personnel became necessary. The HRVCB has a life span of only two to three years.
“We have talked to the Department of Budget Management about this,” Sarmiento said. “We had expected only 20,000 claims, double the number of the Hawaii claimants. Now we have more than 75,000 cases.”
The HRVCB cannot give a definite number of cases that have been decided upon because the number increases every day. But 75,739 cases are a daunting number to handle, and Sarmiento said for a division to finish 1,000 cases a month was not a breeze.
There are nine stages in the claims process. Stages 1 and 2 (preparation and submission), though time-consuming and physically tiring, were not as difficult as Stage 3 (evaluation and resolution of each claim by the board.)
The board is now in Stage 3, which is not only time-consuming. It also needs patience, probity and good judgment. Adding to the difficulty is the sensitive nature of the cases: Wade into pools of blood and tears, stories of torture, death, loss, suffering, imprisonment, despair, trauma, fear, broken lives, lost opportunities, rage.
Not easy for the HRVCB, said Senturias and Parong who, as doctors, had seen their share of medical cases involving victims of martial rule. Parong was herself a political detainee.
Zumba for release
“That’s why Chair Sarmiento decided to have Zumba sessions for the staff every end of the week,” Parong said with approval. The exercise is their way to release the toxicity continuously poring over human rights violations cases that are in the thousands.
After Stage 3 is (4) publication of a preliminary list of eligible claimants, (5) filing of opposition and/or appeal, (6) decision on opposition and/or appeal, (7) publication of the final list of eligible claimants, (8) determination of monetary award per eligible claimant, and (9) distribution of the tax-free monetary award claimed personally by victim/claimant.
The HRVCB clarified that determination of monetary award couldn’t be done now, but only after all cases had been decided on with finality.
“We have to end with a zero balance,” Sarmiento said.
Who’s the claimant?
Every now and then the HRVCB would encounter telenovela-type cases, such as when three persons separately appeared in one day, each one claiming he was the rightful heir of a deceased. Or two women claiming to be the wife of a deceased victim.
In cases where there is no marriage certificate, the board would advise that the offspring of the deceased, if he or she has one, act as claimant.
“We don’t want to interfere with families,” Parong said. “But once, in the morning we had someone who said he was the sole heir. Then in the afternoon two other siblings showed up. They all needed to show birth certificates.”
Horror and heroism
The offices of the HRVCB are housed in Virata Hall and a neighboring building on the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City.
On a regular day, one would find lawyers, paralegals, encoders and other staff quietly going over files in hard and soft (scanned) copies. Two rooms are lined with shelves that hold tens of thousands of brown envelopes—some thick, some thin—that contain human rights violations cases.
The sight gives one goose bumps.
When the HRVCB’s work is over, the files will be turned over to the memorial museum that is yet to be built, a museum not so much of horrors but of heroism.
On Sept. 21, the 43rd anniversary of the signing by Marcos of the martial law declaration, the HRVCB members signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with government agencies on nonmonetary compensation for HRVVs or their surviving kin.
Agencies at the MOA signing were the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Health, and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.
This means added benefits for the legitimate claimants. Many victims who suffered but survived martial rule have already passed on without having experienced a balm for their wounds. But like those who fell in the night, they have bequeathed to their loved ones lessons in heroism.
For those fighters-victims-survivors who remain hale and strong, justice can never be too late. The taste of it is ever so sweet it is worth the wait
FROM THE PHILIPPINE INQUIRER. Thanks to Myles Garcia for alerting me to this welcome article.