Human rights under Duterte so far: 'Killings, threats and a terror law'

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Human rights under Duterte so far: 'Killings, threats and a terror law'
Farmers and land reform advocates will parade a Higantes for the first time in a SONA mobilization on July 26, 2021. The 14-foot-high protest art called "Digna" built by cultural group SAKA represents farmers demanding an end to what they call "Duterte's regime of tyranny and neglect."
Photo from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas

MANILA, Philippines — For human rights and progressive groups, the five years of President Rodrigo Duterte's administration have been a reign of “terror” with “no justice, no peace” for the Filipino people.

Days before the president delivers his last State of the Nation Address, groups led by rights alliance Karapatan recounted what they said was the worsening state of justice and human rights in the country in the last five years. They said they have recorded an increase in killings among the poor, activists, and even among lawyers.

Just two years before his term ended, Duterte also signed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio said, potentially puts "the Philippines is permanently under a situation worse than martial law.” 

Karapatan Secretary-General Cristina Palabay said: "Indeed, it’s high time that we say no more to this type of governance. It is high time for Duterte’s rule to end. It is high time that we make him accountable for the crimes he and his minions have committed against the Filipino people."

Duterte is set to step down from office in June 2022 although he has repeatedly floated the idea of running for vice president. At a meeting this month of the administration PDP-Laban party, he said he will run for vice president to protect himself from suits.

His daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, is seen as a potential candidate for president, with some Palace officials floating a Duterte-Duterte tandem as early as September 2020.

Here is a glimpse of what happened in the justice and human rights sector in the past five years under the Duterte administration.

‘War on drugs’ is 'war against the poor', groups say

  • The latest Real Numbers government data show that, as of April 30, 2021, law enforcement agents have conducted 200,632 anti-illegal drug war operations. There have been 6,117 deaths in these operations, but rights groups estimate the number of fatalities at nearly threefold that of government data.
  • Progressive groups say the "war on drugs" has largely been waged against the poor, as big-time syndicates continue their operations. While Cebu-based businessman and suspected drug lord Peter Lim was charged and is facing a warrant of arrest, authorities have yet to locate him. The International Criminal Police Organization, Interpol, have already been notified of Lim’s status.
  • There have been virtually no convictions of cops over "drug war" abuses, save for the case of Kian Delos Santos, Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said. The family of slain father and son Luis and Gabriel Bonifacio secured an indictment on homicide charges against four Caloocan cops at the Office of the Ombudsman — but even this came four and a half years after their killing.

    Meanwhile, victims' kin have run to the International Criminal Court to seek accountability for Duterte and his men. The Palace has been adamant in claiming The Hague has no jurisdiction over them.
  • As the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor made progress in its examination of allegations against Duterte, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told the UN Human Rights Council that the government was launching an inter-agency review of "drug war" operations that led to deaths.

    The panel flagged police failing to protocols in operations and has since gained access to police files in at least 53 cases handled by the Internal Affairs Service — a first since the launch of the “drug war” operations.
  • On July 22, the Philippine government and the UN inked a three-year joint program on human rights, following the UN Council’s October 2020 resolution outlining capacity-building and technical cooperation for the promotion of human rights in the country.

    Priority areas under the program are strengthening domestic investigation and accountability mechanisms and human rights-based approaches to drug control

After 'drug users' and 'pushers', it's those who made noise about the deaths

  • Duterte in December 2018 signed Executive Order 70 which institutionalizes a “whole-of-nation approach” to end the decades-old communist insurgency.

    This also created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, whose officials have gone on red-tagging spree of progressive groups, activists, even lawyers and journalists.
  • The crackdown against armed communist rebels however seems to have targeted progressive groups and activists too.

    Law enforcers have applied for search warrants on the houses of activists — on March 1, police applied for 63 warrants in a single day.

    In the enforcement of these search warrants for illegal possession of firearms and of explosives, arrests have been made, according to activists and rights workers, based on planted evidence.

    In raids in March, subjects died — with a forensic expert saying after autopsies that they were “shot to be killed.”
  • Though Administrative Order 35, which creates a committee probe into politically-motivated extrajudicial killings, was signed by President Benigno Aquino IIII, the DOJ-led committee found itself with more cases to investigate following vigilante-style killings of peace consultants and even a Karapatan paralegal and bloody police raids in March.
  • Red-tagging, or the practice of labeling of groups or individuals perceived to be critical of the government as “communists” or “terrorists”, has also been rampant: During Senate hearings, in fliers, and on government agencies' social media posts.

    Groups, including the UN human rights office, have reported that red-tagging resulted in threats, intimidation, harassment, and even killing.

Opposition figures, media not spared

  • Barely one year into his administration, one of Duterte’s fiercest critics was jailedSen. Leila De Lima, who launched an investigation into the president when he was still Davao mayor and she was a human rights commissioner, was charged with three counts of illegal drug trading — later amended to conspiracy to commit drug trading.
  • Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who expressed concern over Duterte’s identification of judges supposedly linked to illegal drugs, was booted out of the Supreme Court through Solicitor General Jose Calida’s quo warranto petition, which rights lawyer Edre Olalia claimed was a “reinvention of law and legal procedures” that has been notable during the Duterte administration.
  • Government agencies also filed a slew of inciting to sedition complaints. Police filed its largest suit against opposition figures, including Vice President Leni Robredo, over a supposed ouster plot through the anonymous “Ang Totoong Narcolist” series, which in the end only saw 11 people charged.
  • Social media users who posted about rewards for the president’s killing were summoned. In one casem a public school teacher was even dragged to prosecution at least three times — all attempts to jail Ronnel Mas however failed.
  • Government lawyers went back to Makati courts to argue for the issuance of arrest warrants against then-Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV over decade-old rebellion and coup d’etat cases after Duterte revoked the opposition lawmaker’s amnesty. Both attempts failed at the local court then later Court of Appeals level. Trillanes however still faces a slew of other, newer complaints such as inciting to sedition and even libel.
  • Media companies who earned the ire of the president also saw themselves facing complaints. The owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer faced tax evasion complaints related to their other businesses.

    Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa faced a slew of criminal complaints, with her and a former researcher being convicted in a cyber libel case.

    Media giant ABS-CBN was forced to go off the air when a panel of the House of Representatives rejected its bid for a new franchise. The decision was reached after a series of hearings where government regulators and agencies said issues raised against the network had either been addressed or were non-existent. In the end, lawmakers said it would be the will of Congress that would have the most weight.

Even lawyers, 'sentinels of the law', report attacks

  • Independent tallies from lawyers’ groups showed that there have been at least 63 members of the Philippine Bar killed in the five years of Duterte's term so far.

    The Free Legal Assistance Group pointed out that the number is higher than murders in the legal profession over the past six administrations, a period spanning 44 years.

    They noted that Duterte, a lawyer himself, has not condemned attacks on their profession. Lawyer Evalyn Ursua said: “We have a president who doesn’t really care about making expressed statement of killings, and encouraging agents to kill. And that has emboldened law enforcers all over the country to do as they wish.”
  • Amid mounting pressure, SC justices made a rare statement in March condemning the attack on lawyers as an “attack on the Judiciary” itself. The Philippines’ highest court vowed it is looking into these issues.

SPECIAL REPORTS: Lawyering for the environment: An unwavering stance to empower communities | When defenders of the environment and rights face threats themselves

Arrests amid a pandemic

  • The Duterte administration has also been criticized for employing a supposedly militaristic approach to addressing the public health crisis by deploying camouflaged cops on streets and ordering warrantless arrests of quarantine violators, under Republic Act 11332 or the "Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act."

    Some complaints filed alleging violation of RA 11332 were dropped by the prosecutor or the court — but detention and being haled to judicial authorities meant trauma and the risk of COVID-19 for those nabbed.
  • Officials say the measures are backed by science and are only meant to ensure compliance from "pasaway" or stubborn citizens. Government officials were also tagged as quarantine violators. While investigations were ordered, none of them were brought to court for drawing mass gatherings, holding a well-attended birthday party or breaching protocols in instances of confirmed exposure to confirmed COVID-19 cases.

READ: DOJ: Law applied consistently during pandemic; 'known' personalities prosecuted too

SPECIAL REPORTS: Beyond arrest, raps: 'Quarantine violators' face trauma, COVID-19 risk too Driven by hunger, urban poor go out for rumored relief drive but are haled into court instead

The Anti-Terror Act's potential 'reign of terror'

  • As the country grapples with the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 despite mounting and multi-sectoral opposition.

    The law faced its first legal challenge at the Supreme Court, barely 24 hours since it was signed; 36 other petitions coming from a wide range of sectors including Constitution framers, legal luminaries down to Indigenous Peoples urged the SC to strike down the law for allegedly infringing on people’s rights.
  • The law’s first known casualties are Aeta farmers Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos who were detained and charged in August 2020 as they were fleeing a firefight in Zambales. After months of detention — with government lawyers swooping in to defend them against charges State forces had filed — an Olongapo court acquitted them and said soldiers who were prosecution witnesses failed to establish the identities of the perpetrators authorities were looking for.

    But just as Gurung and Ramos walk free from nearly a year of detention, the anti-terrorism law was used against more farmers as its new casualties. Karapatan reported that four people from Occidental Mindoro were jailed and accused of allegedly protecting New People’s Army combatants.
  • The Anti-Terrorism Council has so far designated at least six groups as terrorist organizations, including the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army, and, in its latest resolution, the National Democratic Front, which represents communist rebels in peace talks with the government.

    Some 19 supposed members of CPP’s Central Committee, including peace consultants, were also tagged as terrorists, and their bank accounts — and what little assets they have — have been put under the scrutiny of the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

READ: A year into Anti-Terror Law, kin of terror-tagged peace consultant left with frozen assets, constant anxiety

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