Manila (AsiaNews) – The government has imposed a nationwide gun ban ahead of forthcoming elections. More than 50,000 police and soldiers have been deployed in 3,500 checkpoints in 15 provinces. The move was made to prevent the repeat of the 23 November massacre in Maguindanao, which left 57 people dead. The regulation took effect on Sunday until 9 June 2010.
The Commission on Election (Comelec) will have the power to direct police and other public authorities in the matter. It will also be authorised to promote or suspend officials to prevent election fraud, a problem that plagued elections in 2004 and 2007.
Since yesterday, police has arrested 71 persons for violating the Comelec-imposed gun ban. Among the violators were six military personnel and five police officers.
“For the Church, the culture of impunity must be totally opposed; a gun ban is not enough,” said Mgr Dinualdo Gutierrez, bishop of Marbel (Mindanao).
“Every election period, there is a gun ban but the killings go on. As long as the authorities do not have the will to implement the gun ban, peaceful elections would remain a dream,” he added.
The bishop explained that the Church has also launched a voter's education drive against candidates who maintain private armies in the area.
Even though the ban applies to the whole country, most risk areas are in predominantly Muslim Mindanao. For the past 40 years, the island has been the scene of open conflict between the Filipino armed forces and Muslim rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the terrorists from the Abu Sayyaf group.
For a number of years, the prevailing anarchy and arms smuggling have enabled local political leaders to build private armies to stay in power in the provinces under their control.
On Friday, Defence Minister Norberto Gonzales called on religious leaders attending the annual meeting of the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) to back the government’s gun ban.
“We are asking the BUC to help the military convince political leaders to dismantle their private armies and surrender their firearms,” Gonzales said.
He said that President Arroyo backs dialogue as the best way to fight the situation of impunity and anarchy that reigns in Mindanao.
"If need be we'll go province per province, town per town, city per city, family per family; we need to identify all of these (private armies), then we will take action,” he said.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has however criticised the ban because increased security measures and too much police power could lead to human rights violations.
“The rights of all persons stopped at the checkpoints should be respected,” CHR chairperson Leila De Lima said.
The authorities should issue clear guidelines on how to implement the “plain view” doctrine regarding checks for firearms, and how to approach and talk to motorists.
De Lima stressed that the law says that police and military personnel must be identifiable at all times with nameplates or labels conspicuously displayed on their uniforms.
In addition, checkpoints in Manila and high-risk areas should also have cameras to monitor activities to prevent abuses by law enforcement, the CHR said.