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(Manila) -- The Philippine government should investigate an alleged “death squad” implicated in several hundred killings in Tagum City on the southern island of Mindanao, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Official police records obtained by Human Rights Watch show 298 killings between January 2007 and March 2013 that provincial police attributed to the “Tagum Death Squad,” and for which no one has been prosecuted.
The 71-page report, “‘One Shot to the Head’: Death Squad Killings in Tagum City, Philippines,” details the involvement of local government officials -- including Tagum City’s former mayor, Rey “Chiong” Uy -- and police officers in the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, street children, and others over the past decade. The report draws heavily on interviews and affidavits from three self-proclaimed members of the death squad in Tagum City who took part in its killing operations. It also examines the failure of the Philippine government to seriously investigate the death squad and bring those responsible to justice.
“Tagum City’s former mayor helped organize and finance a death squad linked to the murder of hundreds of residents,’” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Rey Uy called these citizens ‘weeds.’ He and other city officials and police officers underwrote targeted killings as a perverse form of crime control.”
Since 1998, when he was first elected Tagum City’s mayor, Rey Uy, along with close aides and city police officers, hired, equipped, and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices. Many were on the city government payroll with the Civil Security Unit, a City Hall bureau tasked with traffic management and providing security in markets and schools.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than three dozen people, including surviving victims and their families, witnesses to killings, police officers, and former death squad members. The former death squad members described how those who refused to carry out orders, sought to quit, or otherwise fell into disfavor were themselves likely to become death squad victims.
“There is compelling evidence of the involvement of Tagum City police and former Mayor Rey Uy mayor in a death squad that operated during Uy’s 1998-2013 tenure as mayor,” Kine said. “The Tagum death squad’s activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder.”
The 12 killings Human Rights Watch documented typically occurred outdoors, on the streets, and often in broad daylight. The hit men, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses and armed with .45 caliber handguns, would arrive and depart on government-issued motorcycles. Former death squad members told Human Rights Watch that they would routinely inform local police via text message of an impending targeted killing, so the police would not interfere. After the killing, the police in turn would notify them if any witnesses had identified them.
Those targeted were primarily people that Mayor Uy had declared to be the “weeds” of Tagum society, namely suspected petty criminals and drug dealers, as well as street children. The death squad drew its targets from the “order of battle” or OB, a list of names coming from various sources, including local community leaders, neighborhood watchmen, and police intelligence officers. Names of drug suspects were provided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
The Tagum Death Squad also apparently carried out “guns-for-hire” operations that Uy was either unaware of or did not specifically commission, such as the killing of a journalist, a judge, at least two police officers, and a tribal leader as well as local politicians and businessmen. In several cases, the death squad’s handlers would fabricate drug allegations against the target of a contract killing to justify to Uy their murder.
Former Tagum Death Squad members told Human Rights Watch that the unit was paid 5,000 pesos (US$110) for every killing, which the members would divide among themselves. They said that on at least two occasions, Uy personally paid the death squad members for two killings. A former hit man who was himself attacked by his former colleagues surrendered to the Davao del Norte provincial police and later agreed to testify in a case filed against Uy and others. Targeted killings have continued but with less frequency since Uy stepped down as mayor in June 2013.
The Tagum Death Squad was initially a crime-fighting group patterned after the death squad in nearby Davao City, which propelled that city’s mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, to national fame. In February 2011, Uy issued an explicit warning to “criminal” elements in the city advising them to “go somewhere else.” A senior official of the governmental Commission on Human Rights described these murders as “silent killings” because they were hardly ever reported in the media.
Local and national authorities have failed to seriously investigate the vast majority of Tagum City’s killings, Human Rights Watch said. While police routinely cite a lack of witnesses to explain the absence of prosecutions, victims’ relatives and witnesses say they fear testifying, largely due to the perceived links of the death squad to local officials.
On April 28, 2014, the media reported that the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation had recommended the prosecution of four security guards employed by the Tagum City government for their alleged role in the abduction, torture, and murder of two teenage boys in February 2014. The current Tagum City mayor, Allan Rellon, reportedly told the media that he was “bewildered” by the allegations, saying that, “As a local chief executive, I abhor any form of summary killing.”
President Benigno Aquino III has largely ignored extrajudicial killings by death squads in Tagum City and other urban areas. He has failed to condemn local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unauthorized use of force to rid city streets of “undesirables.” A much-vaunted initiative by the administration to address impunity – the creation in 2012 of a so-called “superbody” to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings – has remained largely inactive even as new cases were reported by Philippine human rights groups.
Other national institutions responsible for law and order, namely the Department of Justice, the Philippine National Police, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights have largely been inactive in combatting death squads.
Human Rights Watch has previously published a 103-page report, “You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,” on a ‘death squad’ active in Davao City and the government’s failure to investigate the involvement of police and local government officials in targeted killings.
Human Rights Watch called on the Aquino administration to direct the responsible government agencies to take measures to stop the killings in Tagum City and elsewhere, thoroughly investigate death squad killings and the death squads themselves, and bring justice to the victims' families. Immediate attention should be given to the situation in Tagum City and the role of former and current government officials and members of the police in abuses.
“The Philippine government’s failure to act decisively against death squad killings has certainly contributed to the horrific death toll in Tagum City, “ Kine said. “President Aquino needs to send a loud and urgent message that deploying death squads as a ‘crime control’ measure is unlawful and needs to stop.”
Children working on tobacco farms in the United States are exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 138-page report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” documents conditions for children working on tobacco farms in four states where 90 percent of US tobacco is grown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Children reported vomiting, nausea, headaches, and dizziness while working on tobacco farms, all symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. Many also said they worked long hours without overtime pay, often in extreme heat without shade or sufficient breaks, and wore no, or inadequate, protective gear.
“As the school year ends, children are heading into the tobacco fields, where they can’t avoid being exposed to dangerous nicotine, without smoking a single cigarette” said Margaret Wurth, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It’s no surprise the children exposed to poisons in the tobacco fields are getting sick.”
The report is based on interviews with 141 child tobacco workers, ages seven to 17 (view infographic).
Children working in tobacco farming face other serious risks as well, Human Rights Watch said. They may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns. Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields. They said the spray drifted over them, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.
Many of the pesticides used in tobacco production are known neurotoxins, poisons that alter the nervous system. The long-term effects of childhood pesticide exposure can include cancer, problems with learning and cognition, and reproductive health issues.Children are especially vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing.Human Rights Watch sent letters to 10 US and global tobacco companies and met with many of them to encourage these companies to adopt policies, or strengthen existing policies, to prevent hazardous child labor in their supply chains.
“Tobacco companies shouldn’t benefit from hazardous child labor,” Wurth said. “They have a responsibility to adopt clear, comprehensive policies that get children out of dangerous work on tobacco farms, and make sure the farms follow the rules.”
Health Hazards for Children
Several hundred thousand children work in US agriculture every year, but no data is available on the number working in tobacco farming. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described going to work on tobacco farms at age 11 or 12, primarily during the summer, to help support their families. Most were the children of Hispanic immigrants who lived in communities where tobacco was grown and who attended school full-time.
Children Human Rights Watch interviewed described feeling suddenly, acutely ill while working on tobacco farms. “It happens when you’re out in the sun,” said a16-year-old girl in Kentucky. “You want to throw up. And you drink water because you’re so thirsty, but the water makes you feel worse. You throw up right there when you’re cutting [tobacco plants], but you just keep cutting.” A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina described a headache he had while working:“It was horrible. It felt like there was something in my head trying to eat it.”
Acute nicotine poisoning – often called Green Tobacco Sickness – occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants, particularly when plants are wet. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Though the long-term effects are uncertain, some research suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have consequences for brain development.
Several children told Human Rights Watch that they had been injured while working with sharp tools and heavy machinery. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, children often hand-harvest tall tobacco plants by cutting them with small axes and spearing the stalks onto long sticks with pointed ends. The children said they often cut or puncture themselves on the hands, arms, legs, and feet. A 16-year-old boy described an accident while harvesting tobacco in Tennessee: “I cut myself with the hatchet.… I probably hit a vein or something because it wouldn’t stop bleeding and I had to go to the hospital…. My foot was all covered in blood.” One 17-year-old boy interviewed by Human Rights Watch lost two fingers in an accident with a mower used to trim small tobacco plants.Almost none of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that employers had given them health and safety training or protective gear. Instead, children typically covered themselves with black plastic garbage bags in an attempt to keep their clothes dry when they worked in fields wet with dew or rain.
Federal data on fatal occupational injuries indicates that agriculture is the most dangerous industry open to young workers. In 2012, two-thirds of children under 18 who died from occupational injuries were agricultural workers, and there were more than 1,800 nonfatal injuries to children under 18 working on US farms.Most children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had no access to toilets or a place to wash their hands at their worksites, leaving them with tobacco and pesticides residue on their hands, even during mealtimes.
Lack of Protection Under US Law
Under US labor law, children working in agriculture can work longer hours, at younger ages, and in more hazardous conditions than children in any other industry. Children as young as 12 can be hired for unlimited hours outside of school hours on a farm of any size with parental permission, and there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms. At 16, child farmworkers can do jobs deemed hazardous by the US Department of Labor. Children in all other sectors must be 18 to do hazardous work.Regulations proposed by the Labor Department in 2011 would have prohibited children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, but they were withdrawn in 2012.
“The US has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,”Wurth said. “The Obama administration should endorse regulations that make it clear that work on tobacco farms is hazardous for children, and Congress should enact laws to give child farmworkers the same protections as all other working children.”
Role of Tobacco Companies
Human Rights Watch presented its findings and recommendations to 10 companies that purchase tobacco grown in the United States, including eight cigarette manufacturing companies: Altria Group (parent of Philip Morris USA), British American Tobacco, China National Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, Japan Tobacco Group, Lorillard, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, and two international leaf merchants who purchase tobacco leaf and sell to manufacturers: Alliance One and Universal Corporation.
All of the companies except China National Tobacco responded and said they are concerned about child labor in their supply chains. However, the companies’ approaches do not sufficiently protect children from hazardous work, Human Rights Watch said. In some cases, companies allow for lower standards of protection for children in their US supply chain than for children working on tobacco farms in all other countries from which they purchase tobacco.
Philip Morris International has the most comprehensive global child labor policy among the companies contacted. Since 2010, Philip Morris International has sought to carry out the policy through training and monitoring in its supply chain worldwide. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented abuses on farms supplying tobacco to a Philip Morris International subsidiary in Kazakhstan.
Human Rights Watch urged companies to prohibit children from engaging in all tasks that pose risks to their health and safety, including any work involving direct contact with tobacco plants or dry tobacco, due to the risk of nicotine exposure. Companies should also establish effective internal and third-party monitoring of labor policies.“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides, and have no real protective gear,”Wurth said. “Tobacco companies should get children out of hazardous work on tobacco farms and support efforts to provide them with alternative educational and vocational opportunities.”
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Criminal Records Brand Youth for Life
(Tallahassee) – Every year, the state of Florida arbitrarily and unfairly prosecutes hundreds of children as adults. If convicted, these children suffer the lifelong consequences of an adult felony record for what are often low-level, nonviolent offenses.
The new 110-page report “Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its 'Direct File' Statute,” details the harm that results from the state’s practice of giving prosecutors full discretion to decide which children to prosecute in adult courts. More than 98 percent of the 1,500 cases of children charged as adults between 2012 and 2013 were brought by prosecutors under the direct file statute. The law offers no opportunity for a judge to review or reverse the prosecutor’s decision, no matter how unsuitable the case is for criminal court.
“The children caught up in the ‘direct file’ law cannot legally vote, drink, or buy cigarettes in the state of Florida,” said Alba Morales, a US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Yet they can be tried as adults with no judge evaluating that decision, and branded as felons for life.”
While children who commit crimes can and should be held accountable, doing so in adult courts and prisons is both unnecessary and harmful to society and youth, Human Rights Watch said. Rather than enhancing public safety, studies indicate, trying children in the adult criminal justice system produces higher recidivism rates for these offenders than for those who are kept in the juvenile justice system.
Children are less mature in their judgment and self-control than adults, and above all, are still developing and have great potential to change. The juvenile system is intended to rehabilitate and to balance the needs of society and the best interests of the child, while the adult criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over all else. Children prosecuted as adults lose access to age-appropriate education and programming provided under the juvenile court system. Young people describe feeling confused and abandoned in adult court. Many encounter violence in adult jails and prisons.
“In adult court, they want to lock us up,” one youth, a boy, told Human Rights Watch. “In juvenile court they want to help us make better choices.”
For nearly every child charged and convicted in adult court in Florida, the end result is an adult felony record that will harm him or her for life. A few cases result in misdemeanor or other non-felony convictions. Those with felony convictions are barred from many types of employment and suffer many other deprivations, including permanent loss of the right to vote.
Prosecutors may contend that they transfer young offenders to adult court for only the most serious crimes. But of the children tried in adult court in Florida in 2012 and 2013, 60 percent had been accused of nonviolent offenses, according to data Human Rights Watch analyzed.
Human Rights Watch spoke to over 100 youth and family members of youth charged directly in adult court by Florida’s prosecutors. Among the cases reviewed were:
The report also includes new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch showing that the overwhelming power Florida has handed to prosecutors is playing out in arbitrary and unjust ways. Florida’s judicial circuits send arrested children to adult court and impose harsh adult punishments at vastly different rates, though the differences cannot be explained by the seriousness of offenses, the size of youth populations in the various circuits, or any other neutral criteria Human Rights Watch examined. In some circuits, evidence suggests that racial bias may affect who is sent for an adult trial.
“The same child, accused of the same offense, may receive vastly different treatment based on nothing more than which prosecutor is in charge of their case,” Morales said. “These decisions should be handled by Florida’s juvenile judges, who can ensure fair treatment, not by prosecutors who have a vested interest in getting defendants to plead guilty or in punitive outcomes.”
The US Supreme Court, in a series of four recent cases, has underscored what every parent knows – that children are developmentally less mature, and more capable of rehabilitation. Their punishment should take into account their diminished culpability and their capacity to change, Human Rights Watch said. Judgments about punishment are best made by the juvenile system, which takes these factors into account.
“Florida should stop its widespread practice of saddling children with adult felony records that offer no recognition of their capacity to change,” Morales said. “Children, including teens, can be held accountable without subjecting them to treatment as harsh as that which the state of Florida is handing out.”By the Numbers: View Charts Showing Racial Disparity in Sentencing...
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