The Philippine Supreme Court is looking at strengthening its powers to help halt the killing of leftist activists, including forcing the military to thoroughly probe allegations against soldiers, the chief justice said.
Masked men on motorcycles have continued to assassinate leftwing leaders, despite Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's vow to stop the political violence after the UN said in February that members of the military were behind many of the hundreds of deaths.
"The issue commands urgency. So many lives have been lost. So many disappearances," said Chief Justice Reynato Puno in an interview in his chambers yesterday. "If it further worsens, it could be crunch time for the Philippines."
Special courts to deal with the extra-judicial killings have been created, but there have been no convictions since they were established. The military has denied it is involved in the killings, but it is probing 94 cases of suspected unlawful executions.
"The extra-judicial killings and the enforced disappearances are escalating," the 67-year old Puno said. "I thought at the very least the judiciary can act on its own."
Last month, Puno, who has been chief justice since December, convened a special summit in Manila. Head of the armed forces General Hermogenes Esperon, as well as leading members of the left, civil society and the media attended.
The summit recommended shifting the burden of proof on to the state in cases of political violence where the government refused to provide vital evidence and also called for a revival of peace talks with the communist New People's Army (NPA).
Under the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court can expand its authority to protect the constitutional rights of citizens. Up until now, it has not used this power.
The government and military have blamed many of the killings and disappearances on internal purges within the NPA, while international human rights groups have said there is evidence of a "dirty war" by the armed forces against the left.
Puno, whose older brother was killed by an NPA hit squad in 1977, said the Supreme Court was now considering new rules that would allow the judiciary to force the military to properly probe allegations of political violence.
"If they do not satisfy these standards there will be appropriate remedies to be given to the victims of the crime, such as damages, reparations, restitution, fines," he said.
Puno said the judiciary was also considering giving the courts the power to initially probe allegations of political killings and disappearances.
In related news, left-wing protesters marched through a downpour in Manila yesterday to demand the release of an activist who they believe was abducted by security forces 100 days ago.
The Supreme Court has ordered the military, police and Arroyo to produce Jonas Burgos in court, after his family and supporters mounted a nationwide campaign accusing security forces of kidnapping him on April 28.