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Filipinos protest steady rise of political killings

A leftist leader was shot Monday. Some 600 leftists and more than 70 journalists have died in five years.

Sotero Llamas, a former national leader of the Philippine Communist Party, was among 52 leftists facing charges of rebellion when he was gunned down Monday, several hundred miles south of the capital.

Who did it remains a mystery, as are most of the killers of some 600 leftists and more than 70 journalists in the five years of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's tenure. But to many observers, they are reminiscent of actions during the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in the People Power revolution of 1986. And, they say, the government is not responding forcefully enough to the rising number of abuses.

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"There's a pattern of arbitrary detention and arbitrary killings," says Eduardo Dinsuy, a director at the quasi-independent Commission on Human Rights, empowered by law to investigate and recommend cases for prosecution. "And most of them are committed by those in uniform."

The concern over human rights violations comes at a time when Ms. Arroyo, who rose to power in 2001 in a second People Power revolution, confronts recurrent rumors of anti-government plots and strong opposition from both the right and left extremes of the spectrum.

Arroyo imposed emergency law temporarily in February during an abortive coup attempt. The fear now is that she may be tempted to impose a measure of martial law in the name of stamping out revolt and cracking down on lawlessness at a time when corruption, along with enormous economic inequities, appears as widespread as during the Marcos era.

"This administration is desperate to perpetuate its power," says Vergel Santos, chairman of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a media watchdog formed after Marcos's fall. Mr. Santos argues that the government is responsible "for encouraging an environment where these things can be done."

Those who see a government hand in the repression may have a hard time proving their case. The government has created a task force charged with investigating the killings. But the concern is familiar in a country accustomed to the lure of democracy and the reality of harsh repression under Marcos. The longtime leader invoked martial law for a decade, during which time thousands were arrested, newspapers were closed, and huge business interests were divided among "cronies."

Sister Crescencia Lucera, executive director of Task Force Detainees, a group founded while Marcos was in power, sees a reversion to that era. "Most of these cases involve the military and the police," she says, adding, "we're not sure who is in control."

Officials in the government ascribe the killings to local commanders or vigilantes. Most slain journalists were commentators who angered local warlords by attacking corruption and influence-peddling.

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"The government says straight out it's not them," says Wilnor Papa, a campaign officer in the local office of Amnesty International, which issued a report this month on rights abuses in the Philippines. "They're not taking these charges seriously."

The Amnesty report falls short of accusing the government of a terror campaign, but says "scores of leftist activists were killed by unidentified assailants, often reportedly linked to the armed forces."

Protests have grown with the arrest of five "loyalists" of Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada, who are accused of plotting with communist rebels to return him to power in the coup attempt. The five showed marks of torture when released.

But many observers, ranging from Amnesty to the American Embassy, are more concerned about the targeting of leftist political figures.

The killing of Mr. Llamas, a member of the Bayan Muna, or People First Party, was typical of the wave of antileftist violence, as were the pledges of local officials to hunt down the attackers, masked gunmen on a motorcycle. A candidate for governor of his province two years ago, Llamas was accused of setting up a meeting between military officers and leaders of the communists' New People's Army before the coup attempt.

While peace talks between the government and armed groups, including Muslims on the island of Mindanao and communist rebels, stalled, says the Amnesty report, "arrests, unlawful killings, torture and 'disappearances' were reported in the context of military counter-insurgency operations."

Activists say US military advisers, as well as the CIA, have spurred on the armed forces as ties have strengthened with the Arroyo government.

Karapatan, the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace," says the government's program for clearing, holding, and developing "target regions" provides cover for abuses.

"When they clear the area, they use military tactics," says Girlie Patilla, Karapatan's executive director. "It's part of the war on terror. The United States is providing military support."

The US Embassy here acknowledges the growing alliance since 9/11 amid concerns about Muslim extremism in the southern Philippines. The US gives more than $100 million a year in military aid. Still, the US is combating the perception that it ignores human rights abuses.

US ambassador Kristie Kenney in a rare interview last week with The Philippine Star, expressed concern about abuses. "Human rights are always critical," she was quoted as saying. "You have to look into these things as a government and make clear that it's not acceptable."