Philippines: The killings gather pace

You won't have heard of Hermie Marquesa. He lived in the town of Tandag, about 500 miles south of Manila, and he was an activist in a farmers' group called the Peasant Movement of the Philippines. A few nights ago some men with rifles forced their way into his house and shot him dead.

According to the Filipino human-rights organisation Karapatan, which has been keeping count, Marquesa was the 729th victim of extra-judicial killing in the country since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power in 2001, and the rate at which these killings are happening is steadily increasing.

Though you might have missed it, outrage at this bloodshed reached a climax in recent weeks, boosted by a damning report from Amnesty International, but any hopes that the killings will stop must be faint. A second attempt to impeach the president failed in parliament a fortnight ago and she has tried to kick the whole assassinations issue into the long grass by setting up an official inquiry - Marquesa's death came hours after this was announced.

Arroyo's reign in the Philippines must be one of the most turbulent in modern politics. As she took over after her predecessor Joseph Estrada sank in a sea of corruption, she promised she would not contest full elections due in 2004. Lo and behold, she changed her mind and won narrowly, though tape recordings made public later were said to show her squaring the outcome of the count with a senior electoral official.

Since the start of this year she has grown steadily more dictatorial, seeking to ban political meetings, arresting opponents, curbing press freedom (ten journalists have been murdered this year) and declaring a state of emergency. In June her government elevated the long conflict with the communist guerrillas of the New People's Army into "all-out war", and this became the pretext for even more draconian measures.

And all along, the men in masks have been shooting left-wing activists and government opponents in the streets or in their homes, escaping unimpeded on motorbikes.

Amnesty International's report, which documents 51 killings this year, notes the "politically motivated pattern" of the deaths and criticises the government's complete failure to pursue those responsible. Only three suspects have ever been even arrested, and none has been convicted. Amnesty warns: "The organisation remains gravely concerned that members of the security forces may have been directly involved in the killings, or else have tolerated, acquiesced to, or been complicit in them."