Human rights in the Philippines roundup
The biggest human-rights news in May-June 2019 in the Philippines are the killings and illegal arrests of activists in three of the poorest regions in the country – Bicol, Negros and Samar – which have been subjected to intensified military deployment and control by the government of Rodrigo Duterte.
The period witnessed the killing of human-rights activists in Sorsogon, in the same week of the murder of similar activists in Bicol. There is also the escalating arrests in Negros and the killing of a peasant leader in the region.
The spate of killings in the Bicol, Negros and Samar comes after the issuance of Memorandum Order 32 which declares that the said regions are under a State of Lawless Violence. The memo orders the deployment of additional forces of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police. Human-rights group Karapatan, however, sees this as an underhanded move to further normalize human-rights violations and repressive policies.
At the same time, the arrest of a Cagayan de Oro journalist earned widespread outrage and condemnation. Alongside these illegal arrests, Karapatan members from the Southern Tagalog region also faced harassment as the group conducted fact-finding and humanitarian missions in relation to cases of strafing and the deaths of three people in Mindoro province.
The following members and leaders of people’s organizations were victims of extra-judicial killing in the two months:
>> June 8 – Felipe Dacal-Dacal, 65, member of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) in Escalante City, Negros Occidental. He was shot three times by a gunman, well-known to be a rebel returnee-turned-paramilitary, while inside his residence. According to initial reports, the perpetrator visited the victim’s house three times to try to “convince” him to stop joining protest rallies.
>> June 9 – Arnie Espenilla, member of Masbate People’s Organization, a member-organization of Karapatan-Bicol. Espenilla was at home in Brgy. Lahong, with his family when a number of soldiers forcibly entered the house and shot him to death.
>> June 10 – Zando Alcovendas, another member of Masbate People’s Organization, was shot dead in Brgy. Buenavista. It was said that uniformed men forcibly entered his house and shot him.
>>June 14 – Pizo Cabug, yet another member of Masbate People’s Organization, and resident of Brgy. Buenavista, was at home and was killed a few days after the shooting of Espenilla and Alcovendas. He was about to retire for the night when soldiers killed him. The three human-rights advocates based in Masbate province were all farmers and residents of San Fernando town.
>> June 15 – Ryan Hubilla, 22, and Nelly Bagasala, 69, staff members of Karapatan-Sorsogon, were killed by gunmen at the corner of Phase 2, Seabreeze Subdivision in Barangay Cabid-an, Sorsogon City, Sorsogon. According to initial reports of Karapatan-Sorsogon, suspected military agents have been following some political detaines who have just been released from prison, their lawyers, and paralegals of Karapatan-Sorsogon from prison. On April, four Karapatan human-rights workers, including Hubilla, were tailed by men onboard a gray pick-up vehicle and a black motorcycle. Both vehicles had no license plates. This incident happened after they escorted Atty. Bart Rayco of the National Union of People’s Lawyers-Albay who was visiting his clients who were political prisoners at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Sorsogon.
>> June 16 – Liovigildo “Nonoy” Palma, leader of peasant organization KASAMA-Bukidnon residing in Sitio Malabago, Brgy. Halapitan, San Fernando, Bukidnon, was shot dead outside his house. According to initial reports from peasant organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Northern Mindanao, three men onboard a motorcycle shot Palma. Palma’s neighbors recognized one of these men as a member of Alamara, a paramilitary group, operating in the town under the 88th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. KASAMA-Bukidnon is the provincial chapter of the KMP.
>> June 17 – Neptali Morada, 40, former Bicol regional coordinator of partylist group Bayan Muna who is working as staff member of the former provincial vice-governor of Camariners Sur, was gunned down in the village of San Isidro, Naga City. Morada was riding his motorcycle going to work when an armed assailant aboard a white pick-up vehicle suddenly fired at him. Morada, who also served as campaign officer of the umbrella organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan in Bicol and was a member of the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, is a well-known figure among activists in the region.
>> June 27 – Lito Itao, 49, auditor of the transportation group Guihulngan City Habal-habal United Operators and Drivers Association and head of the village security group was murdered in Sitio Culasi, Brgy. Buenavista, Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental. Itao was reportedly sitting outside a store with his neighbors when armed men onboard a motorcycle drew a small firearm and shot him. The victim was able to run away from the hitmen for around 25 meters before collapsing. Itao was brought to the Guihulngan District Hospital but was declared dead on arrival.
Meanwhile, the following members and leaders of people’s organizations were victims of illegal arrests and harassment in the last two months:
>> June 9 – journalist and development worker Fidelina Margarita Valle was arrested at the Laguindingan Airport in Cagayan de Oro City. Valle flew in from Pagadian for a series of interview and was on her flight home to Davao City when she was nabbed. After being transferred from a Cagayan de Oro police station, she was brought to the custody of the regional police in Camp Abelon, Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, and was released at 11:18 that night. The Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) said Valle’s arrest was a case of mistaken identity.
Karapatan, however, slammed Valle’s arrest as “a case of harassment not only targeted at Valle, but at activists and journalists in the country.” The government, it says, “is trying to send a message of orchestrated intimidation and the deliberate use of legal processes to try to justify political persecution and trumped-up charges.” Karapatan also condemned the police operatives involved in the arrest as Valle’s 10 hours in custody renders her vulnerable to different forms of violations, including interrogation and psychological and physical torture.
>> A spate of illegal arrests also occurred in various towns in the province of Negros Oriental. According to initial reports, in two separate sitios of Barangay Mansalanao in La Castellana town, three farmers were nabbed by unidentified armed men.
>> Arnaldo Namu, 30, was abducted by five unidentified armed men and forced into riding a van, while Francisco Alabagan, 40, and his wife known as “Kapid” of Sitio Anunang were illegally arrested by individuals who introduced themselves as members of the Military Intelligence Group.
>> Hermin Escapalao, 57 and Jorex Escapalao, 49, Hacienda Raymunda Farm Workers Union–NSFW vice-president Jorex Escapalao, as well as residents of Hacienda Raymunda, in Barangay Kapitan Ramon, Silay City, were also harassed, when at least 10 members of the PNP forcibly entered the homes of the Escapalao siblings. The police supposedly went in their homes to serve search warrants. Jorex Escapalao is currently illegally detained at the Silay City police station.
>> June 26 – Pastor Jimmy Teves of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), Jodito Montecino, former chairperson of Kauswagan ng Mangunguma sa Brgy. Buenavista; Eliseo Andres, JP Manzano of Sitio Kankelin, Rodrigo Medez of Sitio Cabagal, Roger Sabanal, Japser Aguyong and another farmer who is yet to be identified were all illegally arrested by members of the 62nd Infantry Batallion of the Philippine Army in Barangay Buenavista in Himamaylan town.
Out of the 12 arrested farmers, six – namely Teves, Montecino, Andres, Manzano, Medez and Aguyong – were all implicated in a murder charge pending before the Kabankalan Regional Trial Court Branch 61 under the sala of Judge Rodney Magbanua.
In June 3, 2019, trade-unionist Marklen Maojo Maga was falsely convicted of the trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms. Maga was illegally arrested on February 22, 2018 on the basis of an arrest warrant resulting from a fabricated murder case in Agusan del Norte, a province he has never been to. The police and military operatives who nabbed him claimed that he had in his possession a 45-caliber gun – a ludicrous claim given that he was playing basketball when he was arrested and just brought his son to school.
Early in June, Karapatan welcomed the statement of United Nations Human Rights Experts on the need for the United Nations Human Rights Council to conduct an independent investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines.
On June 8, Karapatan supported the call for the United Nations’ Independent Probe following the alarming scale of human-rights violations in the country. Karapatan reiterates that the Duterte government should be held into account for the violations and that upholding people’s rights is a “necessary advocacy in ensuring governments do not renege from their human rights obligations.”
Update: On July 11, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, proposed by the government of Iceland, endorsed by 28 other countries, to probe the extra-judicial killings and other human-rights abuses of the Duterte regime. This is in response to efforts by Karapatan and other organizations in the country to make the regime accountable for its countless human-rights violations.
On June 28, the demand for protection of human-rights groups fell on deaf ears when the Court of Appeals refused to grant the petition of Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and Gabriela for the writ of amparo and habeas data which the groups filed. The said legal measures were created to protect human-rights activists and all other activists from surveillance, illegal arrests, trumped-up charges or any harmful measure from the government.
According to Karapatan, the refusal of the appellate court to provide protection for defenders at risk shows the government’s complicity with the attacks perpetrated against human-rights workers. Karapatan continues to exhaust all legal processes to appeal and overturn the court’s decision. Karapatan continues to contest the court’s decision and refuse to give in to what it calls the government’s attempt to absolve itself of its role in the attacks on activists and continuing human-rights violations.
Despite the martial-law conditions in Negros, a candidate for city councilor who is also a long-standing activist figure in the region and a victim of extra-judicial killing when he was campaigning, was reelected.
Bernardino Patigas, 72, a former secretary-general of the provincial organization of human-rights advocates was reelected as city councilor of Escalante with 18,011 votes in the May 13 elections. Patigas’ election, Karapatan said, is “a testament to how rooted he was in the community, and how the community, in turn, loved and respected him back. This is a powerful statement of acknowledgement for a formidable public servant, of endearment for Tatay Toto, and condemnation for his killing.”
Karapatan has released its first quarter report on the human-rights emergency in the Philippines for 2019. Please read the report here.
Meanwhile, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) successfully held its third general assembly in Hongkong in June 27-29 with the theme “Stand United! In solidarity with the Filipino People for Justice, Freedom and Democracy!” More than 160 participants from 21 countries attended the event. We are calling on all friends of the Filipino people to join the ICHRP. Please read the communique of the third general assembly here.
Most of the data presented in this roundup comes from Karapatan, an alliance of individuals, groups and organizations working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Collated and contributed by ICHRP-Africa