On the Bench in the Philippines, An Improbable Revolutionary

By Emily Green
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 1, 2007

MANILA -- The Philippines, scarred by political assassinations and corruption, is looking to its new chief justice for salvation. And in his first nine months in office, Reynato Puno has moved with lightning speed to set up a more independent judiciary charged with enforcing a new code of legal responsibility.

Hoping to use the courts to remake Philippine society, Puno has embarked on a campaign to end the widespread assassinations of journalists and political activists.

More than 800 politically linked killings have taken place since 2001 and more journalists have been killed in the Philippines than in any other country but Iraq, according to human rights groups.

Puno is an improbable revolutionary. He was appointed to the bench by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and, at 67, has only three years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Yet this time limit has only stirred Puno to accelerate the pace of his agenda -- to clean up the notoriously corrupt judiciary and create legal accountability for the recent string of political assassinations.

In an interview, Puno said the killings are "like a replay of the last years of the Marcos government."

But stopping the killings, or even curbing them, is no easy task. A U.N. report this year pointed to the military as "responsible for a significant number of killings."

Puno, a man so reserved he barely moves in a lengthy interview, has been agile in pushing all segments of the Philippine government to act. Under his leadership, the Supreme Court has called for the creation of a separate court system to handle assassination cases so that powerful local interests cannot influence judicial outcomes.

In July, the Supreme Court hosted a national summit on the killings. Nearly every high-ranking government bureaucrat and official -- including the house speaker and the military chief of staff -- attended the two-day event. The Supreme Court justices personally led breakout sessions.

The summit made national headlines for its bold recommendations. Summit participants proposed that the government and courts adopt the doctrine of "command responsibility" as described in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The doctrine holds that a military officer is responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates and for failing to prevent or punish those crimes.

The Philippine military chief of staff, Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, said in an interview that while it is "probable" some military officers are responsible for some of the killings, the doctrine of command responsibility cannot hold him personally responsible.

"The immediate commanders over those officers will be responsible. That is the essence of command responsibility," Esperon said. "It is not, as described in the Rome Statute, that you should know what happens. Who should know that? Who would know everything that happens?"

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