Hit the ground running

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas -
Scorned by skeptics from Day 1, the Melo Commission must hit the ground running. At stake is not just the integrity of its individual members or even Malacañang, but the country’s status in the community of nations as a democratic society, notwithstanding our highly-charged politics.

We can’t afford to be depicted as the killing fields of Asia. We’ve come a long way since the Marcos dictatorship was toppled in 1986. Two "People Power" revolutions and 20 years after, the picture is far from perfect, but it certainly cannot be as sordid as this talk of "death squads" purports the reality to be.

If there’s a sense of prevalence to the murders, it’s not necessarily that they occur more frequently now than in the ’70s or ’80s, but that news travels much faster these days, courtesy of technology. We have kept tabs of the extrajudicial killings precisely because these are reported by the media almost as soon as they occur. For every case, accusations fly thick and fast, with very little chance for analysis because yet another murder comes into public view.

Which makes it imperative for the state to issue a well informed public contending with unbridled news on a daily basis – that no one gets away with murder.

Or extortion, for that matter. The recent expose by Akbayan Party List Rep. Etta Rosales on the nefarious acts done by the New People’s Army – razing the truck of Altertrade, a small trading company based in Bacolod City, because it could not (would not?) cough up money to line the pockets of local cadres – underlines the need for vigilance. As Rosales narrated, the NPA’s attempt to collect on the P30-million revolutionary tax had started five years ago. Due to broad-based intervention of local authorities, foreign governments involved in the GRP-NDF peace process, and to fair trade movement partners of Altertrade, the NPA was kept at bay – but not without a warning that it would strike back "as soon as the situation allows." The opportune time came a few weeks ago, presumably because no one was watching.

Suffice it to say that the same predator mentality attends every murder. And Representative Rosales succinctly captured the fundamental problem: "In this war, nobody wins and it is innocent, unarmed civilians who suffer."

Certainly, it’s a tall order for the Melo Commission. Not only is it confronted with the cynicism of the Arroyo administration’s foes, it must also deal with quite a number of cases – most reportedly unsolved for sheer lack of information from the victims’ families amid a dizzying barrage of claims and counterclaims from the military and police, on the one hand, and the New People’s Army, on the other.

The challenge is to sift through the claims to unshackle the facts.

Technically, the Melo Commission is well equipped to do so. Retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo was once hailed by former SC Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. for his "integrity in decision-making, disposition of cases without undue delay but with acuity, erudition and zeal, a fitting response to the public clamor for speedy justice at the least possible expense." Upon his retirement in 2002, colleagues commended Melo for his "prolific output" during his 10-year stint in the high court. He "simply ran out of cases to decide," according to a plaque of appreciation awarded to him then.

With a "zero backlog" record to live up to, the former justice’s last hurrah in this controversial commission he heads, is almost guaranteed to produce the desired results. Thus, when he declared on his inauguration last August 28 that "there will be no sacred cows" in the pursuit of justice, he came across as credible. More so when he asserted that the Melo Commission would disband itself if anyone interfered with its mission.

Spelling out his plan, Melo said the commission would start conducting its inquiries by mid-September. Aside from determining the facts and culpability in each case, he is inclined to look into structural changes that would make it more conducive for witnesses to come forward despite the risks of doing so. Describing his appointment to the commission as a "challenge to do a little bit more for the country," Melo expects to bow out of the limelight in four to six months with a report detailing how to stop the cycle of violence.

Despite doubts owing to their government postings and the perceived lackadaisical silence of the Department of Justice on the alleged political killings, it cannot be denied that National Bureau of Investigation Director Nestor Mantaring and Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno are best positioned to gather and analyze evidence needed to prosecute perpetrators of these extrajudicial killings – elements that are germane to the job of the Melo Commission.

Its two other members – Nelia Gonzalez of the University of the Philippines Board of Regents and Butuan City Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos – even the scales with their civil society roots.

My icon, Gonzalez, leads many socio-civic organizations and is involved in advocacy work for streetchildren. She is governor of the Manila Overseas Press Club, president of the Philippine Federation of Business and Professional Women, and head of the Carmelite Foundation. She has also served as president of the Los Baños chapter of the UP Alumni Association, Asiaworld Properties Philippines Corp. and the Quezon City chapter of the Zonta Club, a worldwide organization that seeks to advance women’s legal rights, health, education, and economic status.

Bishop Pueblos, meanwhile, is an educator who has been exposed to the social milieu in both Visayas and Mindanao, where some of the reported extrajudicial killings have transpired. In 2004, he played a key role in the peace dialogue that sought to resolve hostilities between indigenous residents and government troops in the South. His resolve to be part of the case, amid a veiled threat from Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz of a possible dismissal from his clerical role due to the civil posting, is admirable. Bishop Pueblos has shown his mettle, and he will be a great asset to the Melo Commission.

Collectively, they should be able to provide clarity to the muddled situation brought about by inflammatory statements regarding the unsolved murders, and hopefully put an end to the sense of hysteria these provoke.
* * *
NOTHING can be more heartening than having PGMA and VP Noli de Castro leading this year’s Alay Lakad Para sa Kabataan Day tomorrow, September 3. The two top officials of the land have participated in the annual walk which was organized by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 168, and Frank Evaristo, Alay-Lakad Foundation Inc. president, is hopeful that they would make it tomorrow.











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