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Members of the Philippine army have been accused of committing a war crime, after posing for a photo with the body of a suspected communist rebel fighter, who is also the daughter of a member of Congress.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Thursday that posing with a person’s body for photographs was “an outrage against the dignity of the individual” and was prohibited under the laws of war.
“Committing outrages upon personal dignity is a war crime under the Rome Statute as it applies to dead persons under the ‘Elements of Crimes’ of the International Criminal Court,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“Evidently posed photographs of the body … are a cruel and unnecessary affront to that individual’s dignity and violate the laws of war.”
Robertson pointed out that there are similar provisions on the humane handling of dead bodies in the agreement on human rights signed between the Philippines and the National Democratic Front, the political-wing of the communist rebels.
The Philippine Army said that Jevilyn Campos Cullamat was killed in a “shoot-out” in a village in Surigao del Sur, a province in the southern island of Mindanao.
The Cullamat family belongs to the Manobo ethnic minority group, which has also been fighting for land rights in Mindanao.
The military identified the 22-year-old – daughter of House of Representative member, Eufemia Cullamat – as a fighter of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines – now a designated “terrorist group” following the collapse of talks with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Her mother earlier condemned the military over the killing.
“She is not a thing, she is not a trophy to be paraded for military propaganda. You did not respect the dead, you are also disrespecting our family’s grief,” she said.
Jevilyn Cullamat, a medical officer and alleged member of the Sandatahang Yunit Pam propaganda Platoon of the NPA’s Guerilla Front 19-Northeastern Regional Committee, died at the hands of the Philippine Army’s 3rd special Forces Battalion. [cont…] pic.twitter.com/QIfk008CPO
— Gabriela Youth-Bulacan (@GY_BULACAN) November 30, 2020
Outrage erupted when the state-run Philippine News Agency published a photo of the aftermath of the encounter, in which special forces soldiers were shown posing next to Cullamat’s body and some seized weapons.
The photo was later deleted, but not before members of the press made copies and took screenshots of the image.
Facebook pages belonging to the Philippine army and media personalities allied with the Duterte administration also published photographs showing the young woman’s body, drawing thousands of mostly supportive comments.
On Wednesday, Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defence secretary, admitted in a television interview that what the soldiers had done “was wrong”.
“I don’t approve of that action. They (soldiers) shouldn’t have done that,” Lorenzana told the CNN Philippines TV network.
Duterte’s National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr said Cullamat “lost her life for a forsaken cause”.
The military denied the accusations that they had desecrated Cullamat’s body, saying they took the photos to serve as “substantial evidence” of a “legitimate encounter.”
Independent House of Representative member Edcel Lagman, however, said that Jevilyn was not a fighter but a medic.
“The propaganda photo with the dead 22-year old Jevilyn Cullamat cradling a planted firearm speaks a thousand words of the terrorism and depravity of state agents,” Lagman said.
The Maoist-led rebel group has been engaged in on-and-off talks with the Philippine government in a bid to end half a century of conflict in which tens of thousands of people have died and thousands of others forced from their homes.
Following new clashes between government forces and rebels in 2017, Duterte signed a proclamation labelling the communist fighters a “terrorist” group, essentially breaking off the peace process.
Since then, he has repeatedly denounced the group and offered a reward for the killing of rebel members. He also sparked outrage when he urged soldiers to shoot female rebels in their private parts.
Earlier this year, the government also passed an anti-terror law, which critics warned could be used against the rebels and other critics of the Duterte administration.
Several of Duterte’s top aides and military officials have also started linking activists and some artists critical of his administration of having links to the communists – a process known as “red-tagging” – alarming rights groups.