A hell week for human rights in the Philippines 

A murder, five cases of abductions and the continued illegal surveillance of civilians.

The last week has been very hectic for human rights advocates in the Philippines as they have to contend with cases of extreme violations against human rights allegedly perpetrated by elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

On September 29 around 4 pm, veteran unionist and labor organizer of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement), 67-year-old Jude Thaddeus Fernandez, was gunned down inside his rented house in Binangonan, Rizal, by members of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG). 

On the same day, farmers’ rights advocates Norman Ortiz and Lee Sudario were abducted by suspected members of the military in Nueva Ecija, this time north of Manila.

The week before, three Indigenous People’s right advocates were abducted by elements of the 4th Infantry Battalion, 203rd Infantry Brigade (IBde), Sitio Malaglag, Barangay Lisap, Bongabong, Oriental Mindoro province, south of the capital Manila. Job Abednego David, 29, Peter del Monte, 29, and Alia Encela, 19 were reported missing by their respective families and work colleagues.

Human rights advocates.

Gunned down by military agents 

For the continued campaigns demanding wage hikes, an end to labor contractualization and respect for the rights to unionize and collective bargain, labor unions are under relentless attack. Labor groups such as the KMU exposed that since 2016, 72 unionists were killed, and Fernandez was the latest victim.  

Since January 2023, four unionists were gunned down, and this despite the call of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to end the spate of violence against workers. The said agency of the United Nations (UN) held a high-level tripartite mission in the Philippines precisely to investigate the murder of labor rights advocate and union leaders.

According to reports from KMU, the police said they shot Fernandez to death because he tried to resist arrest. The secretary general of the group Jerome Adonis, however, said the police was lying.

“Jude was an unarmed civilian – he did not have a gun and he never did. The reasoning that he tried to resist arrest and tried to fight the police is an old excuse. The police are always saying this to justify their extrajudicial murders. There’s an existing pattern already: they force themselves into the homes of their unarmed, civilian targets and then shoot them dead,” Adonis said during a protest rally in front of police headquarters Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

Adonis said this was the police’s modus operandi during the height of the previous Duterte government’s war against drugs.

“But Jude was not a drug addict or a pusher; he was a veteran labor leader. He was an activist since his university days. He was a labor organizer who helped strengthen unions in Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog. He was also an unarmed senior citizen,” he insisted.

As of this writing, Fernandez’ family and the KMU have been demanding that the CIDG turn over his body so that it could be autopsied but the police authorities have not responded.

Eyewitnesses said that after killing Fernandez, his killers took his remains away in a body bag.

A fact- finding mission led by congressional representative Arlene Brosas of Gabriela Women’s Party and former congressman Ferdinand Gaite of Bayan Muna (People First) have released findings stating there were no signs that a scuffle broke out in Fernandez’ house. 

“Based on how the house looked, no physical altercation took place. If forensic experts looked for clues and found blood, all of it would be Jude’s,” Adonis said.

The police were reportedly demanding a P2 million fee (US$35,306) for Fernandez’ body. Relatives said the fee revealed that what happened was a deliberate and targeted killing.

Candle lights vigil.

Advocates of Indigenous People’s rights illegally arrested

Prior to their abduction and consequent arrest, the three advocates Job, Peter and Alia were living in one of the Indigenous People’s communities of the Mangyan tribe and documenting reports of various violations against human rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Mindoro province.   

In the last six months, the 203rd IBde has been conducting bombing and shelling operations in the area, reportedly as a means to deter protests of residents against ongoing rock quarrying projects. Residents of Bongabong are mostly small rice and coconut farmers and they have declared their opposition to the quarrying.

The group Mothers and Children for the Protection of Human Rights (MCPHR ) is vouching for the three advocates, particularly Alia who was once a coordinator and spokesperson of a women’s group and volunteered with the MCPHR.

In a statement, the group said Alia left behind her comfortable upbringing to help exploited communities.

“She helped urban poor communities in Cavite and actively contributed to campaigns against community demolition operations and reclamation projects.  She left her comfortable life and moved to Mindoro where she could serve Mangyan communities and help them resist and survive the devastation caused by widespread quarrying and bombings on their land,” the group said.

As of this writing, the three advocates have already been located in the military camp in Bansud, but the 203rd   IBde and the 2nd Infantry Division continued to turn down requests of human rights groups to see them. The head of the 203rd IBde, Brig. Gen. Randolph Cabangbang, refused to give a statement. to reports that his unit was behind the abductions and that the three are accused of being New People’s Army members.

The New People’s Army (NPA) is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Human rights advocates.

Aerial bombardments and strafing

According to Karapatan Southern Tagalog, indigenous communities in Mindoro were primarily victims of the 4thInfantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA)’s military operations. From April 29 to May 8, a series of “test fire exercises”, aerial bombings and strafing affected 14,261 residents in Roxas, Mansalay, Bongabong, and Bansud towns in Oriental Mindoro. Thousands were forced to abandon their farms and leave their communities.

On July 16, soldiers of the 4th IBPA abducted and tortured Pedro Ambad, a Mangyan farmer in Brgy. Panaytayan, Mansalay town. According to human rights groups on the ground, soldiers also broke into the home of Admiraw Ambad, Pedro’s brother. The soldiers ransacked the house, possibly looking for weapons. Admiraw and his family immediately evacuated after the soldiers left, due to trauma and distress.

Other documented cases were the abduction of Indigenous People’s rights activists Arnulfo Aumentado and Mary Joyce Lizada on April 25. The two were taken to the 2nd Infantry Division headquarters in Camp Capinpin, Tanay, Rizal. Aumentado and Lizada were staff members of Indigenous People rights group Bigkis and Lakas ng Katutubo sa Timog Katagalugan (BALATIK), but the military accused them of being members of NPA.

Rev. Luisito Saliendra, a protestant priest who supports the advocacy of human rights groups in Mindoro, explained that in the last decade, the 4th IB has gained a reputation of notoriety for its attacks against indigenous Mangyans and those who support their rights to their ancestral lands.

“In 2020, farmer Jay-ar Mercado was murdered. In 2019, advocates for Mangyans Rey Irvine Malaborbor and Nadeline Fabon were illegally detained and subsequently charged with fake crimes. All this was going on while bombing and strafing operations in Mangyan communities were also happening,” he said.  “This is a deeply concerning trend of state violence.”

As for Ortiz and Sudario, they have been earlier accused by the military of being NPA members. Based on reports of residents, it was between 1 and 2 am when they saw Ortiz and Sudario forced inside a van by armed men dressed in army uniforms.  

In November 2022, the CIDG included Sudario’s name in a list of alleged NPA members charged with violation of the anti-terrorism law and the Philippine Act on Crimes Against IHL, Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity.

The human rights group Karapatan Central Luzon, however, said that whatever the case may be against Sudario, the government has an obligation to observe IHL statutes, and to uphold and guarantee the utmost respect for international humanitarian law under any circumstances.  

Human rights advocates.

“The Butcher” acquitted

As the killings of activists and civilians continued, however, an infamous human rights violator was recently acquitted.

On October 6, the Malolos Regional Trial Court (RTC) north of Manila laid down its decision acquitting former army general Jovito Palparan on kidnapping and illegal detention charges of University of the Philippines (UP) students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan. Judge Francisco Felizmenio said the eyewitness accounts presented against Palparan were insufficient in proving the latter’s guilt.

In 2006, Palparan, infamously known as “Berdugo (Butcher)”, became a mainstay in news stories leading the then Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government’s counter-insurgency campaign. In senate and congressional investigations that exposed his nefarious activities, it was revealed that Palparan utilized various and extreme methods of intimidation, torture, sexual violence, illegal detention and summary executions against his targets.

Under his command, two student activists from the University of the Philippines (UP), Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno, were abducted, tortured and killed. According to eyewitness testimonies, the two were subjected to inhumane acts of torture under interrogation. 

Palparan has been in jail since 2014. He initially went into hiding in December 2011 after a Bulacan court issued a warrant of arrest against him in connection with the Cadapan and Empeno cases. The government of then president Benigno Aquino III issued a P2-million bounty for Palparan, and the latter was arrested in Manila on August 12, 2014.

While Palparan was legally convicted for these crimes in 2018, the charges against him of another illegal detention and torture of two farmers, Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo, were dropped on October 6. The court said there were “inconsistencies” in the Manalo brothers’ accounts. This went against the declaration of higher courts that these same testimonies held up.

Palparan’s acquittal, human rights groups alleged, had all the signs of being the handiwork of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

“It comes at a time when abductions, trumped up charges, and illegal detention of advocates, workers, and peasants are running rampant.  Palparan himself committed similar heinous crimes,” said  Cristina Palabay, the secretary general of Karapatan.

After what human rights groups said was his rampage, Palparan was only charged and convicted for the abduction and murder of two individuals.  In 1991, Palparan was implicated in various cases of torture and extrajudicial killings. On September that year, some 100 residents of Sta. Cruz, Zambales were arrested, interrogated and forced to sign their “surrender” by the 24th Infantry Battalion. They were presented to the mass media as “NPA surrenderees”.

As the commanding officer of the 7th Infantry Battalion in Mindoro, Palparan’s soldiers were behind 71 cases of extrajudicial killings of civilians. There were also 14 cases of frustrated killings, and five incidents of massacre traced back to soldiers under his direct command.

“Palparan is also the mastermind behind the abduction and murder of human rights defender Eden Marcellana and peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy, United Council of Churches of the Philippines (UCCP) Pastor Eddie Lapuz, human rights lawyer Fedelito Dacut, and Philippine Independent Church (PIC) Supreme Bishop Alberto Ramento,” Palabay said. “He left a trail of bodies everywhere he went.”

Far from condemning his actions, the president Macapagal-Arroyo awarded Palparan with the Distinguished Service Star and lauded his success at “reducing the rebel area by eighty percent” during his time as commanding general in Eastern Samar. 

Palparan is currently detained at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City.

Human rights advocates.

Emboldening state fascism

For Filipinos monitoring the civil, political and human rights situation in the country, each day brings new reports of violations. Observers are already pointing out that Palparan’s acquittal – as well as the increasing number extrajudicial killings wherein no perpetrators are caught and punished – served to embolden the more fascist segments of the government armed forces and the bureaucracy to commit more acts of violence targeting activists, critics and other opposition forces.

Raymond Palatino, the secretary-general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN or New Patriotic Alliance), said the aim of the killings, abductions, and arrest of activists is to silence Filipinos when they denounce worsening corruption and cronyism in government, as well as the plunder of the country’s resources by foreign business entities.

“We know that the government wants to stifle dissent and spread fear.  Will we back down? The truth is we have no choice but to push back. We can’t allow the normalization of all violence as a response to calls for social justice,” said Palatino.

All photos credit: Kodao Productions

Top photo: Protesters outside the National Police HQ.

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