Makabayan bloc to seek probe on Human Rights Day arrests

Makabayan bloc to seek probe on Human Rights Day arrests
Members of the Makabayan bloc face the press in a news conference.
Makabayan bloc / Release

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 4:50 p.m) — The leftist Makabayan bloc will be seeking a probe into the separate raids conducted on Human Rights Day that resulted in the arrest of six trade unionists and a journalist over firearms possession charges.

“The Makabayan bloc will file a resolution to investigate this in the House,” Rep. Carlos Zarate (Bayan Muna) told a news conference in Filipino on Friday.

Zarate and Rep. Ferdinand Gaite (Bayan Muna) said the probe may include a review of the penalties imposed on planting evidence.

“Maybe we can study if we can increase the penalty for planting evidence,” Gaite told the same news conference.

Currently, people found guilty of planting explosives as evidence would be put behind bars for 20 to 40 years.

Zarate is also calling on the Supreme Court to take notice of the recent arrests of activists, saying there is a pattern behind these.

“Isn’t the judiciary wondering why there seems to be a factory of warrants coming from one jurisdiction?” the lawmaker said. “The pattern is almost always like that. Explosives are planted to make trumped-up charges later on.”

On International Human Rights Day, labor organizers Denisse Velasco, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, Jaymie Gregorio, Joel Demate and Rodrigo Esparago, and Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem were arrested following separate raids where police supposedly discovered firearms and explosives.

The warrants that led to the arrest of the seven were all issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, who, according to Defend Jobs, was 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.

Human Rights Watch: Arrests deeply concerning

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."

Rights group Karapatan earlier said more than 400 political prisoners arrested under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte are accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives — charges which their lawyers have said are trumped up.

National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers president Edre Olalia said that this is the usual charge against activists because it is a case that is easier to prove in court and that evidence for it are supposedly easy to plant. — Xave Gregorio with a report from Kristine Joy Patag

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