Elaine Pearson (R), deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) talks during a press conference in Manila on July 19, 2011. While the new government has improved its "rhetoric" on human rights and is more receptive to change, military men still targettig anto government activists, New York-based Human Rights Watch said. PHOTO/NOEL CELIS

MANILA, July 19, 2011 (AFP) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino has failed to curb extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses by the military during his first year in office, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

While Aquino’s administration appears more willing to tackle the problem than previous governments, soldiers are still getting away with the unlawful targeting of mainly leftist activists, the New York-based monitor said.

“There is a continued pattern of extra-judicial killings of leftist activists,” HRW’s deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said in Manila as she released a 98-page report on alleged rights abuses by the Philippine military.

“Despite several strong statements… what we’ve seen is that in many ways, the pattern remains the same.”

In the report, HRW documented what it said was “strong evidence” of the military being involved in the killings of seven activists and the disappearances of three others during Aquino’s term that began a year ago.

Many soldiers make no distinction between leftist groups, who wage peaceful protests, and communist insurgents who have been pursuing a guerrilla war to seize power for more than four decades, according to the report.

Pearson said, just as with previous governments, Aquino’s administration had been unable or unwilling to punish accused soldiers.

“Activists are being gunned down in the streets, while implicated soldiers walk free,” she said.

“The Philippines can only bring an end to these horrific abuses if it is clear that anyone who orders or commits them will be jailed and their careers over.”

On a positive note, HRW’s Manila-based Asia researcher, Jessica Evans, said top government officials were in “constructive engagement” with human rights groups over the issue.

This was in contrast with previous president Gloria Arroyo’s administration, which dismissed human rights complaints as being communist propaganda, according to Evans.

But Evans said the government must take the next step of investigating and prosecuting implicated soldiers.

The head of the military’s human rights office, Colonel Domingo Tutaan, told AFP the armed forces was willing to work with HRW to look into the alleged abuses documented in the report.

He said that if a soldier was found to have violated human rights, he would be “dealt with to the full extent of the law”.

Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said he disagreed with HRW’s accusation that the government was not fully committed to stamping out the problem and insisted it was liaising closely with the military.

“We will not tolerate extra-judicial killings in this country,” he said. ■