Thursday, September 14, 2006

Rally greets GMA in Brussels

Human rights advocates hold a rally in the middle of the European neighborhood in Brussels, Belgium to call for decisive action against the political killings in the Philippines during President Arroyo’s visit to that country last Sept. 12. - Photo By ISABEL MASSART
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Rally greets GMA in Brussels
By Vi Massart Chief Europe Correspondent
The Philippine Star 09/15/2006

BRUSSELS — A street rally protesting the spate of killings of left-leaning activists and journalists in the Philippines greeted President Arroyo upon her arrival in Belgium last Monday on the second leg of her European visit.

About 50 Filipino, Belgian, Dutch and German protesters denounced the killings and accused Mrs. Arroyo of doing little to stop them and bring the killers to justice.

Belgian socialist lawmaker Inga Verheart joined the rally, organized by Belgian non-government organization INTAL, outside the European Commission during Mrs. Arroyo’s talks with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.

"We believe that if the spate of killings do not stop, the European Union should impose limited economic sanctions on the Philippines," rally organizer Wim de Ceukelaire said.

The protesters displayed a banner that said "Stop the killings in the Philippines."

Verheart, a member of the Federal Parliament of Belgium, challenged Mrs. Arroyo’s administration "to be transparent" in dealing with the killings.

"We addressed questions to Mrs. Arroyo’s government about the treatment of members of Congress this year and we still have to hear from her government," she told The STAR.

Verheart was referring to Mrs. Arroyo’s crackdown on left-leaning lawmakers, street protests and critical media organizations when she declared a weeklong declaration of national emergency in February to quell a reported coup attempt by renegade military officers in league with communist rebels and their civilian backers.

"We hear of these incidents of killings and we are saddened to hear that Mrs. Arroyo does not believe it’s worth her while to answer questions by members of the Belgian parliament concerning the situation in the Philippines," Verheart said.

The Arroyo administration has come under criticism from leftist and human rights groups following several disappearances of left-leaning activists that they blame on security forces.

Mrs. Arroyo has been criticized for the series of killings, for which she has been blamed for either condoning the attacks or not doing enough to stop them.

She denied that her administration has been cracking down on dissidents and had pledged to bring the killers to justice.

"I believe that such a spate of killings has no room in our democracy or in our government so I have escalated the response of the government," Mrs. Arroyo told The STAR.

She formed an independent commission last month to investigate the killings. Retired Supreme Court justice Jose Melo heads the panel.

A number of Filipino, Belgian and Dutch human rights activists staged a protest rally outside St. Michael Cathedral where Mrs. Arroyo attended Mass and was welcomed warmly by the local Filipino community later in the day but they were dispersed by police.

Mrs. Arroyo also had talks with Belgian Prime Minister Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt in his official residence but there were no street protests because the vicinity was a no-rally zone.

She then paid a visit to Belgian lawmakers and discussed her initiative to amend the Philippine Constitution and replace the country’s present form of government with a parliamentary system with a federal setup.

Mrs. Arroyo told The STAR that it was "very important for the Philippines to engage Europe" as much as Manila does with main ally the United States, China, Japan and other Asian neighbors.

"After all, Europe is our third largest trading partner and second largest investor in the Philippines. And I’m proud to hear that I’m the first incumbent president to actually visit the European Union officially," she said. "So that’s bringing the Philippines a step higher in our relationship with Europe."

After criticizing the administration of creating "a climate of impunity" that led to the deaths of hundreds of journalists and political activists since President Arroyo assumed office in 2001, Amnesty International agreed yesterday to help the government investigate and put an end to the alarming spate of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Mrs. Arroyo met Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan shortly after her arrival in London yesterday on the third leg of her trip. They spoke for nearly an hour about the spate of killings in the Philippines.

"Just this morning I asked for a meeting with AI and I’m very happy they will help us to find experienced investigators who will help the independent commission in its investigations," Mrs. Arroyo told a gathering of British and European businessmen in a forum organized by Asia House with Shell Corp. on business process outsourcing (BPO) at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel.

"I’m saying all these in a BPO conference because a European businessman would look at the entire cultural environment in which he or she is doing business," she said.

"I would like to point out to you that not only are we familiar with Western business processes, we are also very much in synch with you as far as the universal values of democracy and therefore free enterprise are concerned."

Mrs. Arroyo reiterated her condemnation of the killings saying such violence has no place in a democratic society.

After sending monitors on the human rights situation in the Philippines, AI criticized the Arroyo administration for the continued killings.

It said the "methodology of attacks, including prior death threats and surveillance of persons reportedly linked to the security forces, the leftist profile of victims and the climate of impunity, which in practice, shields the perpetrators from retribution."

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo’s meeting with Amnesty International "reveals her deep concern for human rights and underscores the determination and political will to stop the legacy of this type of retribution once and for all."

"The President sought out AI out of respect for their work and their shared concern for human rights," Bunye said. "She listened intently to their comments and welcomes their recommendation," he said.

Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo also took the opportunity to brief Amnesty International on the abolition of the death penalty and the impending passage of a law compensating human rights victims of the Marcos dictatorship.

Earlier, the European Union commended the Arroyo administration for taking steps to put an end to the killings, including the creation of the Melo commission, but also called for greater transparency in the investigation process.

European Commission president Barroso said the EU would extend assistance to the Philippines on the issue, including grants to strengthen the judiciary.

Spain and Finland have also committed to help in putting together a team of experts to monitor the work of Philippine authorities. — With Paolo Romero