Government troops and militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) committed atrocities during their five-month battle in the southern city of Marawi, rights group Amnesty International (AI) said Friday in the first detailed human rights analysis of the conflict that ended in October.
In its research carried out in September, AI documented how IS militants targeted Christian villagers, often killing them by slitting their throats. Some militants allegedly killed 25 civilians and held dozens hostage while others pillaged and robbed homes.
Extensive bombing runs aimed at targeting the gunmen often wiped out entire neighborhoods and killed civilians. In the early stages of the war that began on May 23 and was declared finished on Oct. 23, at least 12 soldiers were killed in two separate errant airstrikes by the military.
“Marawi’s civilian population has suffered immensely amid one of the Philippine military’s most intensive operations in decades. Displaced en masse when the fighting began in May, thousands of people are now returning to a city that has been utterly destroyed in places, where civilians have been slaughtered by militants, and both sides have committed abuses,” AI’s Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan said.
“The IS-linked militants’ bloody, months-long siege of Marawi took a heavy toll on civilians, with Christians in particular singled out for brutal attacks, including grisly extrajudicial killings,” Hassan said.
Armed forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said AI had requested permission to conduct a ground investigation, but as far as he knew, it was told to get in touch with the country’s foreign office in New York.
“Up to this time, we have not received it yet and perhaps it is still in the loop,” he said. “But we have told them that we are committed to … international humanitarian law and respecting human rights.”
He noted the military leadership would not “tolerate nor condone misdeeds of our soldiers” as they continued to wrap up clearing operations in the south. He said troops were told at the start of the conflict to follow strict instructions to “abide by all that we have been taught to respect,” chief of which are the rules of conflict.
“Now, the Amnesty International report is something that we will answer once we get it officially,” he said, adding that the guidance provided to troops on the ground was to observe the “proportionality in the use of force.”
“We understand that they also questioned the manner by which we employed bombings to address threats in the area,” he said, emphasizing that troops were faced with extraordinary challenges even as they managed to rescue more than 1,700 civilians trapped in the crossfire for weeks or held captive by the gunmen.
He stressed the AI report was based on allegations, and that if there were infractions committed by troops in the course of the fighting “we can say that these were isolated incidents.”
Padilla said soldiers’ emotions had been running high, considering that 166 of their comrades were killed in the clashes and that could have been the reason why one video that circulated on social media showed soldiers beating up a civilian.
He said that any report of human rights violations were “very disturbing and they’re very serious.” An internal investigation by the military resulted in no evidence.
AI said it interviewed at least eight people who said they escaped areas controlled by the militants only to face mistreatment by soldiers including torture.
Among those were a group of Christian construction workers who had been trapped. One who was in his 40s, was shot at by militants on his first attempt to flee while three of his colleagues were killed.
The man was detained by the Marines on his second attempt when he crossed a bridge to safety.
“We thought that we were safe. But then the master sergeant arrived. Then they told us that we were ISIS. They beat us. I was punched and kicked,” he told AI, using another term for IS.
“My companion showed his ID, but the military said he was a sniper for ISIS. I was beaten with an Armalite [rifle]. They tied our hands and feet with electrical wire. I was crying and they would not listen. The military was very angry because 13 of their men were killed.”
AI said troops poured “burning hot liquid” over the body of another survivor, causing him to pass out. He was later handed over to the Red Cross.
The enemy was equally brutal. About four dozen survivors told stories of at least 10 separate incidents where about 25 civilians were gunned down or had their throats slit.
It described one incident when a man in his 40s saw the militants hijack a hospital vehicle and “execute” its driver because he could not recite the Shahada, an expression of faith in Islam.
AI also interviewed a group of six painters who escaped after hiding for five days. They were chased and fired at by the militants, who hit three of them.
The militants also captured many hostages, who were forced to work and were used as “human shield” to deter advancing troops. At least one was executed and many others were abused, AI said.
“They brought us to a mansion where they kept us hostage. … In the mansion we were used as slaves, following their orders. We cooked, prepared food. If we didn’t follow their commands, they would hit us. Once they fired near my head,” AI quoted a survivor.
Independent probe sought
AI said many of the civilians trapped for extended periods were workers “who were living in a state of fear, at risk of being found by militants and hit by bombs or bullets. An unknown number were reportedly killed by the government’s aerial bombardment.”
It was unable to travel to Marawi to determine if the Philippine military’s use of artillery and airstrikes “breached their international humanitarian law obligations.”
“Further independent investigation is needed to determine whether the infrastructure damage and the loss of civilian life was militarily necessary and proportional to the threat posed by the militants,” Hassan said. “The Philippine authorities must bring those responsible for torture and other violations to justice and ensure that the victims receive adequate reparations. They must also initiate a prompt, effective and impartial investigation into whether its bombing of civilian neighborhoods was proportional under international humanitarian law.”
The fighting was declared over in Oct. 23, when the military confirmed it killed Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS in the region. More than 1,100 were killed in the five-month battle, including 920 militants and 47 civilians.
AI said restrictions on access made it extremely difficult to independently confirm the figures.