Firearms and explosives raps easy way to lock activists up, NUPL says

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Firearms and explosives raps easy way to lock activists up, NUPL says
On International Human Rights Day, several rights groups held a rally to call for the release of all political prisoners in the country.
Karapatan / released

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 4:56 p.m.) — The number of activists charged with illegal possession of firearms and of explosives continues to rise with the arrest of six trade union organizers and a journalist on Thursday, on the International Human Rights Day.

National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers president Edre Olalia, in a post labeled as a legal opinion, noted that illegal possession of firearms and explosives are the usual charges filed against activists. He claimed that this is because it is a case that is easier to prove in court.

The NUPL is no stranger to handling cases against activists, as they have been providing legal services to the poor and marginalized sectors of society, including peasants, workers, indigenous peoples, activists, and the urban poor. They also represent political detainees, whom they say are facing spurious cases.

As of December 3, rights alliance group Karapatan said more than 400 political prisoners arrested under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte are accused of the same charges.

Peasant organizer Amanda Echanis, daughter of murdered peace consultant Randall, was arrested last week and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives—an accusation she and her lawyers decried as trumped up.

On International Human Rights Day, the arrests continued: Trade union organizer Denisse Velasco and journalist Lady Ann Salem are among the latest to be accused of possession of firearms and explosives.

Also arrested were Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, Jaymie Gregorio, Joel Demate and Rodrigo Esparago, whom Karapatan said were also labor organizers. 

RELATED: CHR: Anti-insurgency drive being used to justify threats, attacks on activists

Procurement of search warrants

Velasco’s arrest was made following the implementation of a search warrant from Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, Defend Jobs Philippines said.

Police Lt. Col. Arnold Moleta of the police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group said in an interview with ANC that Villavert also issued the search warrant implemented in the residence of Salem. According to a CIDG press release on Thursday, the five warrants that led to the arrest of the seven were all issued by the same judge.

Defend Jobs, in its alert on Thursday, pointed out that Villavert is also the judge that issued search warrants in 2019 that led to the arrest of dozens of activists in Negros and Manila, among them Reina Mae Nasino.

Olalia explained that search warrants can be “procured by going through the motions and by mere presentation even under oath of supposed witnesses from authorities to claim that such materiel are supposedly in the possession of those to be arrested.”

Moleta however said that Salem had been under surveillance for at least two months before the arrest.

"[The] arrested people were linked to gun-running activities. There were a lot of times that those linked to gun-running went in an out of Salem's home. I cannot say how many times, but [this happened] repeatedly,” he said, partly in Filipino, in an ANC tweet report.

Salem and Esparago were arrested in a condominium unit in Mandaluyong City.

Evidence ‘easy to plant’ too

Olalia added that under the same charge, evidence of firearms and explosives supposedly seized in the area are “easy to plant” too, noting that these materials are “monopolized by the police and military.”

He also noted that conducting operations at dawn or night, where the arrested persons are first “segregated, controlled or neutralized” and have no chance to witness the search make this easy.

NUPL’s Maria Sol Taule, in an earlier press conference, also noted how operations are usually done at night, to take advantage of the “nocturnity” in planting evidence.

Olalia also said: “The routinary legal presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty is always invoked against serious claims that these are planted and irregular.”

Non-bailable offense

The NUPL lawyer also pointed out that a charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives can keep the accused in jail as these are normally non-bailable offenses.

“[Y]ou rot in jail meantime and need to go through a rigorous process over time to prove that the evidence of your guilt is not strong for you to avail of bail if you are lucky,” Olalia added.

He also said conviction can also secured on testimonial evidence that can be “rehearsed and developed over the years to ‘prove’ mere possession of a thing and its ‘chain of custody.’”

Taule, in a series of tweets in October, raised similar points. She said: “We do not have scientific approach of dealing with fingerprints present in firearms and explosives during trial to know if indeed, fingerprints of the alleged owners can be seen in these items.”

Political narrative and demonization of activists

Olalia added that accusing activists of illegal possession of firearms and explosives “fits into the false political narrative” that they have links to underground movement and are therefore terrorists.

“It demonizes legal activists as plain criminals who are armed and dangerous and not fighting for a legitimate cause and issues of public interest through non-armed means and fora,” Olalia said.

This also sends a message of threat and intimidation, he added.

The NUPL on December 9 filed the latest complaint against officials of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict over their red-tagging, or the practice of linking individuals or groups to the communist groups.

NUPL stressed they are filing the complaint “to finally address a continuing wrong, to vindicate their basic rights and to remind public officials that illegal, improper, unjust and oppressive acts and utterances, especially those vicious and virulent, are not without consequences.”

They said: "We also just want to do our work as lawyers."

HRW: Timing of arrests shows government attitude towards human rights

In a press statement, New York-headquartered Human Rights Watch said it "is deeply concerned by the series of highly questionable arrests", saying instances of planted evidence in the course of the government's "drug war" have been documented in the past.

"The accused claim that police planted evidence to justify the charges against them. It is critical that these allegations must be thoroughly and impartially evaluated by independent investigators. There is plenty of room for suspicion about police actions," HRW said.

"It is outrageous and unacceptable that the Philippines government is cracking down on political activists. It should be lost on no one that the police conducted these raids and arrests on International Human Rights Day," it also said.

"This really highlights the Duterte government’s contemptuous attitude toward human rights and its confrontational stance against dissenters and political activists."

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