Release of 32 activists prove charges were trumped-up, groups say

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Release of 32 activists prove charges were trumped-up, groups say
“We express our solidarity with fellow land and people’s rights advocates in the Philippines in urging the government to immediately release and stop the persecution of 57 community leaders,” a joint statement issued by labor and human rights organizations read.
Anakpawis / Released, File photo

MANILA, Philippines — Militant groups on Thursday spoke out against what they said were illegal arrests and subsequent releases of 32 activists in Negros.

The 32 released detainees were part of a larger, simultaneous mass arrest of 57 activists in Manila and Bacolod over alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives. The releases proved the charges were baseless, the groups said.

The military also accused the 57 new respondents of being members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army. 

Anakpawis Reps. Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao and Fernando “Ka Pando” Hicap said more than 60 recorded cases of extrajudicial killings in the Negros Islands resulted in the deaths of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura members. The two slain activists were human rights defenders under the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers.  

"The AFP and PNP modus of planting evidence, particularly firearms and explosives, was immediately exposed and foiled," said Rafael Mariano, chairperson emeritus of KMP and national president of Anakpawis Partylist.

Similarly, Casilao and Hicap said authorities "invented spurious charges" to keep the activists behind bars "with unbailable offenses."

The offices of progressive groups were raided last week, resulting in more than 50 arrests. Activists have called these an illegal government crackdown on progressive groups, some of whom have been criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte's policies.

The raids have led to the detention of prominent rights activists including Bayan Muna regional coordinator Romulo Bito-on and Gabriela-Manila spokeswoman Cora Agovida.

Communist fronts?

According to alternative news site Bulatlat, authorities claimed to have recovered two .38 caliber revolver and ammunition from the Gabriela offices. A number of those arrested are also facing human trafficking charges. 

Casilao and Hicap bemoaned the red-tagging of the "Negros 57" by Presidential Communications Operations Office chief Martin Andanar as communist elements. Andanar, however, insisted on the label.

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“The baseless allegations and cries of harassment of Karapatan are already expected as they have no weapons to fight with versus the clean, legitimate and precise raid of communist terrorists in Bacolod last week,” Andanar said on Tuesday.

Other groups that claim they were falsely identified as CPP-NPA fronts were Oxfam, National Council of Churches in the Philippines and the Farmers Development Center. These came after Major General Reuben Basiao, AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, presented 18 organizations that are alleged communist fronts at a briefing.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo on Thursday also asserted the validity of the raids, saying, "If the evidence shows that they are engaged in criminal activities, that is the duty of the security if they have basis for surveillance."

Interior and Local Government spokesperson Jonathan Malaya, too, echoed this statement. "This is just a warrant of arrest issued by a competent court," he told reporters at the Manila City Hall. 

Invisible martial law 

Figures from human rights watchdog Karapatan showed that there were at least 1,850 cases of illegal arrest without detention recorded from July 2016 to July 2019, to go with other cases of what they said were the Duterte administration's continued mass violations of civil and political rights, particularly their right to dissent.

"Is Negros under military rule? Why would the Philippine Army think and act like the judiciary? Who are they to usurp such powers?" Rolando "Ka Roke" Rillo, National Federation of Sugar Workers chairperson said Thursday. 

Activists have said that uniformed personnel's aggression toward militant and progressive groups demonstrates the presence of an undeclared martial law plaguing the nation. Authorities continue to reject this assertion.

"The tanim-bala, tanim-ebidensya scam of the PNP-AFP was proved as nothing but desperate efforts to criminalize dissent and opposition," Mariano said. 

Casilao and Hicap likened these efforts to the ongoing drug war's Oplan Tokhang, which has at least 5,375 "drug personalities" killed in its wake as a result of official police operations, according to PNP data from March. "This is the same modus they are doing against suspected small-time drug peddlers and users," they said. 

The CPP-NPA has been waging armed struggle against the Philippine government for over five decades. It has been identified as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Philippines.

"Ganito nila ginigipit at pinahihirapan ang mga progresibo at oposisyon na nagsusulong ng interes ng karamihan sa mga Filipino!" lawyers' union chairman Neri Colmenares tweeted. 

"Pero sa pag-gigiit ay nakapasok din tayo at napalaya ang 32 sa kanilang iligal na hinuli."

These releases leave only 11 persons remaining in detention at the Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group's headquarters, all facing criminal prosecution. Colmenares said that he expected the 32 releases to "substantially weaken" the cases against the 11.

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