MANILA (Reuters) - Extra-judicial killings in the Philippines are distressingly high and the military appeared to be responsible for a number of them, a United Nations investigator said on Wednesday.
Philip Alston, an Australian law professor and U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, delivered the strong indictment of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government at a news conference after a 10-day investigation in the Southeast Asian nation.
Local rights group Karapatan has said more than 800 people, most of them left-wing activists, have been murdered or reported missing since Arroyo came to power in 2001. But the military says most of the deaths could be attributed to internal fighting in the communist New People's Army.
Alston said he did not know how many had died, but added: "I am certain the number is high enough to be distressing.
"The impact of even a limited number of killings of the type alleged is corrosive in many ways," he said.
"It intimidates vast numbers of civil society actors, it sends a message of vulnerability to all but the most well-connected, and it severely undermines the political discourse which is central to a resolution of the problems confronting this country."
The government said it was concerned about the killings and the fact it had invited the United Nations to investigate was proof it wanted to act on the matter.
"No right-thinking government or leader will tolerate such things happening and that's the reason why we're looking into it," Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita told reporters.
"It is the policy of the state to look into it and put a stop to it."
Alston laid much of the blame on the military.
"The armed forces remain in a state of almost total denial of its need to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings which have been convincingly attributed to them," he said.
However, he added there did not appear to be any state sanction for the killings: "I do not believe that there's a policy at the top designed to direct that these killings to take place. I'm clear on that."
But Crispin Beltran, detained leader of left-wing political party Anakpawis, told Reuters the government was targeting leftist activists ahead of congressional polls in May.
"It's a strategy to annihilate the opposition before, during and even after the elections," Beltran, who is being held under police custody in a Manila hospital, said in an interview.
The Philippines, also fighting Muslim insurgencies, has been battling the NPA since 1969 in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people. Arroyo declared an "all-out war" on the communist insurgents last year.
Military chief General Hermogenes Esperon has told Reuters that communist rebels were the top security threat to the nation but said troops did not use extra-judicial killings to counter them. He said he will prosecute any soldier found doing so.
Alston said he asked Arroyo "to persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and taking genuine steps to investigate".
He said the military must begin to investigate the killings seriously and "not in a way that simply protects its own officers". The military's claims of an internal purge within the New People's Army were unconvincing, he said.
Arroyo appointed a retired Supreme Court Justice, Jose Melo, to investigate the killings last year but has refused to make his report public. Melo told Reuters that elements in the military were behind many of the killings.
Arroyo has called for the creation of special courts to deal with the political killings and asked the armed forces to update its rules on command responsibility.
Alston said the Melo report must be made public and left-wing groups given space to enter the political mainstream.
"The various measures ordered by the president in response to Melo constitute important first steps, but there is a huge amount that remains to be done," he said.
(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins)