PHILIPPINE troops detained and tortured civilians trying to flee the besieged city of Marawi during a five-month battle with militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group, Amnesty International alleged on Friday.
In the first human rights analysis of the conflict, the rights group documents how the IS-allied militants targeted Christian civilians for the worst of the abuses, including at least 25 extrajudicial killings, mass hostage-taking, and extensive looting of civilian property.
The report also highlighted the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and death of civilians due to the extensive bombing carried out by the Philippines armed forces. And accused the military of detaining and ill-treating civilians, as well as looting.
“Marawi’s civilian population has suffered immensely amid one of the Philippine military’s most intensive operations in decades,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International, in a statement released Friday.
“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.”
The conflict in Marawi, the only predominantly Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, was the country’s biggest and longest battle since World War Two. More than 1,100 people, mostly insurgents, were killed, including 166 soldiers and 47 civilians, according to the authorities.
At least 350,000 people were displaced and large parts of Marawi have been decimated by air strikes.
Amnesty International interviewed 48 survivors and witnesses in September 2017, one month before the conflict was declared officially over. Multiple witnesses described 10 separate incidents where militants killed a total of at least 25 civilians, most were targeted because they were Christians.
Hassan, a driver and shop-owner in his thirties, witnessed militants kill six people by cutting their throats. He believes the victims were Christian carpenters.
“I was in Banggolo market [making a delivery], when I saw six men lying face down on the ground,” Hassan told Amnesty International.
“It was very awful. [The militants] stepped on their heads and they grabbed their hair and then they shot them. … After they shot them, [the militants] started shooting in the air.”
Witnesses also described efforts to hide their Christian neighbours and attempts to smuggle them out of the city in a bid to save their lives.
Aden, in his twenties with four children, told Amnesty International that when he returned to his home in Marawi on May 23, his neighbour asked him to help evacuate eight Christian workers.
“When we got to [neighbourhood] Emie, the ISIS stopped the car and made the Christians line up…and shot them. I saw it,” Aden said.
“They killed them one by one… Before getting out of the car they were asked by the ISIS [fighters] to say Takbeer [Allahu Akbar], and the Christians could not recite it… Then [the fighters] said [to me and my friend], ‘how can you save these Christians, you are Muslims’, then [the fighters] took the car and told us to go back [to Marawi City].”
Aden told Amnesty International that all the men were forced to crouch down with their hands on their head, and then they were shot in the head. All eight were killed by the same fighter.
In some instances, members of the Philippine military treated civilians who escaped militant-controlled areas with suspicion, detaining them and subjecting them to treatment that violated the prohibition of torture.
Members of the armed forces detained numerous people and accused them, without evidence, of being
militants, the report said. Detainees were allegedly then subjected to various forms of ill-treatment including sustained beatings and threats of execution.
Amnesty International interviewed eight victims of such abuse at the hands of the Philippine armed forces. Seven of them were Christian construction workers who had been trapped in Marawi city because they feared being captured or killed by militants if they tried to escape.
“The Philippine authorities must bring those responsible for torture and other violations to justice and ensure that the victims receive adequate reparations,” said Amnesty’s Hassan.
“They must also initiate a prompt, effective and impartial investigation into whether its bombing of civilian neighbourhoods was proportional under international humanitarian law.”