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The Prevalence of Torture in the Philippines

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The bright future of an 18-year-old crumbled to dust when he and two others were arrested and accused of stealing from passengers in a jeepney in April 2010. Immediately after his capture, the young man was thrown to the ground and punched in the face. He was then taken into police custody, handcuffed, and interrogated regarding the location of one of his companions who escaped arrest. At the same time, he bore the brunt of many beatings. He endured blows on the legs with the wooden end of a broomstick and hits on the head with a helmet. His shrieks, cries, and pleas for mercy were ignored. In the end, the young man, fearing that he would receive further retaliation from the police officers, pleaded guilty in desperation.

Torture is a deliberate act that involves the infliction of physical or mental pain on a person to intimidate, punish, or extract information or elicit a confession. It is immoral since it violates human rights. Furthermore, in a speech delivered by Curt Goering, executive director of The Center for Victims of Torture, the act is presented as a grave abuse of power that systematically tramples the identity, dignity, and humanity of a person. Torture is also illegal, for it breaches Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, it is a crime under Philippine law due to the Anti-Torture Act of 2009.

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However, even excluding the fact that it is immoral and illegal, torture is ineffective in interrogations. Several studies have investigated claims of its usefulness in making resistant subjects obey interrogators, but torture is generally considered as an ineffective means of obtaining the subjects’ cooperation as well as valuable information. Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara asserts that the tortured experience stress, which negatively affects memory and cognition and increases the likelihood of the tortured to present inaccurate and unreliable information. Furthermore, these discoveries are in line with the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study. A review of the Central Intelligence Agency’s records showed that many of the detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques (a euphemism for torture) fabricated information. Finally, Article 3, Section 12 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution declares that confessions elicited from torture cannot be used as evidence.
Thus, torture should not be used since the costs outweigh the perceived benefits. But despite the ethical and legal issues it raises as well as the overwhelming evidence against its use in interrogations, the practice of the act persists in the Philippines.

There has been heightened activity in torture due to the Duterte administration’s crackdown on illegal drugs. Balay Rehabilitation Center, an organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights in the Philippines, documented 32 accounts of torture from 2016 to 2017. According to the 2018 report, 69% of these cases occurred during the drug war (2). The Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also found a roulette wheel containing different torture methods in a secret detention facility in Laguna in January 2014. This “wheel of torture” has a “20 second Manny Pacman” for instance, and should the wheel stop there, the detainee is punched non-stop for 20 seconds.

Aside from the prevalence of torture, there is little evidence that the Philippine government has taken steps to eradicate its use. This is because while enactment of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 or ATA has led to an increase in reporting cases of torture, it was only in April 2016 that a person was convicted of torture. Also, Amnesty International noted that most of its interviewees for its report Above the Law: Police Torture in the Philippines neither disclosed that they were tortured nor filed a case when they were not approached by CHR or non-profit organizations. This is due to various reasons such as the victims’ lack of knowledge about their rights and their unawareness of the available options they could take to seek justice.

With these in mind, perhaps torture is not exclusively used in interrogations, and there may be other objectives for its use. It may, for instance, be used to maintain control. According to the book Torture Philippines: Law and Practice, many governments use torture to remain in power. In the Philippines, McCoy claims that this was exemplified when the Marcos regime spread fear and terror by publicly displaying its victims who were tortured and mutilated. Second, torture may be utilized to establish a power asymmetry between the torturer and the tortured. While Otto Doerr-Zegers’s study suggests that the victim is placed in a lasting state of tiredness, the Philippine experience under Marcos’s rule teaches that torture empowers the torturers. When the latter inflict pain on those who are considered authorities in society like professors, priests, and political prisoners, and priests, torturers feel as if they can reorganize societal power structure. Lastly, torture may be used to entertain. The act has been marketized in entertainment media, and scenes of torture are depicted in popular movies and television series. In children’s movie Shrek for example, Lord Farquaad can be seen playing with a dismembered Gingerbread Man. Another example is that Kaneki Ken, the protagonist of the anime Tokyo Ghoul, has his fingers and toes cut off by Jason in the twelfth episode of the first season.

Watching torture scenes, however, is not the sole source of entertainment as people generally enjoy watching horror films. Stephen King, a prolific horror novelist, claims that human beings are mentally ill, and watching horror films provides relief from rationality and helps release pent-up desires and emotions. With this, an analogy can be drawn between torturing a person and watching horror films as both actions are done in the dark and may provide fun and entertainment when people see others in misery.

In the end, torture is — and will never be — justified no matter what the circumstances. But because the practice of the said act persists, its continued use may have hidden implications. It is also notable that torture has centuries’ worth of history in the Philippines. Pre-Hispanic Muslims used torture for interrogation; Spaniards incorporated it as part of the judicial process; Americans utilized water cure torture, and the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, forced young Filipinas to become comfort women. Moreover, the tradition of torture did not end as after foreign occupation, Filipinos began to inflict pain upon their fellow Filipinos.

This raises the question, does the practice of torture provide us a glimpse of our nature as human beings? Has torture become ingrained in our identity as Filipinos? Most importantly, if Stephen King is right in saying that human beings watch horror for its ability to suppress the worst urges from escaping the mind, how can the issue of torture, a problem that stems from our inherent nature as human beings, be solved?


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