Groups cite 'inconsistencies' in alleged surrender of 2 activists

James Relativo - Philstar.com
Groups cite 'inconsistencies' in alleged surrender of 2 activists
A woman hold a placard calling on authorities to surface abducted environmentalists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano on September 7, 2023.

MANILA, Philippines — Environmentalists and human rights groups lambasted statements recently made by the National Task Force to End Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), saying that the narrative behind the "surrender" of Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano doesn't make any sense.

The National Security Council (NSC) last Friday refuted allegations alleging the abduction of Tamano and Castro, claiming that the two are staying at a safehouse after supposedly "distancing themselves from the Leftist movement" and turning themselves in to Bataan police.

In a joint statement, AKAP Ka Manila Bay, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Promotion for Church Peoples’ Response and KARAPATAN said that the said press conference only confirmed that State actors were involved in the disappearance of the two environmental activists who were reported missing on the night of September 2 in Orion, Bataan.

"The government’s version of events begs so many questions, foremost of which is, why would Jonila and Jhed bother to ask [a woman named] 'Ate’s help and surrender in such a roundabout way, when a soldier by the name of Justin Gutierrez had already been frequenting Jonila’s family home in Plaridel, Bulacan since 2022 to 'convince' the activist to 'clear her name' and had even left his number with Jonila’s mother just in case Jonila decides to surrender," said the groups.

"The two activists could have also approached Jhed’s stepfather, who, as a former soldier, presumably has connections to the military."

A photo grab from a CCTV footage showing Jonila and Jhed walking on a road near the time of their reported abduction also did not show the aforementioned "Ate," nor did it show them normally entering a vehicle as claimed by the NTF-ELCAC and Philippine National Police (NTF-ELCAC)

Lack of presence in presser

Only brief video clips of the two were also presented yesterday and with no actual copies of their affidavits provided to the media for scrutiny.

"That they were not personally presented during the press conference reveals a lot of things. The most obvious of which is that the NTF-ELCAC and the PNP are not prepared to present them for questioning by the media, where they could be asked questions regarding the circumstances of their abduction," the groups continued.

"Further, the voluntariness of the execution of the alleged affidavits is of doubtful validity, considering that the same was signed while the two were under the custody of a military unit, and were not represented by a lawyer of their own choice."

"At no time during the press conference did the NTF-ELCAC and PNP say that Jonila and Jhed are facing charges. With no legal reason for State authorities to detain them, they should be released to their families immediately."

Jonila and Jhed's families have reportedly engaged lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group to represent them. However, the two were said to be "not in a position to refuse to be represented by counsel provided to them by their military custodian and to assert to be represented by a counsel of their own choice or one engaged by their families."

'They were asking for help'

At a public form Saturday, AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar insisted that Tamano and Castro were never really abducted, and instead "asked for help to be in order to hide."

"Gusto na nilang umalis sa kilusan dahil nahihirapan na sila. Meron ding grupo na ayaw sa kanila so they want peace, they want security kasi ayaw na nila doon sa kilusan," he said.

NSC assistant director general Jonathan Malaya earlier said that the activists "weren't really environmentalists" but instead organizers of legal activist groups Kabataan and Karapatan.

Malaya also condemned the two organizations for "molding the youth to later on join the New People's Army" in the countryside.

The NSC is currently seeking the assistance of the Department of Justice to prepare the filing of cases against the organizations for allegedly spreading misinformation.

The Commission on Human Rights last Thursday expressed its deep concern over the reported abduction of the two Bataan environmental defenders, saying that it highlights their vulnerability to human rights abuses.

Jonila and Jhed were said to have been active in organizing communities affected by the controversial reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

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