Groups launch Justice for Sagay Massacre Network

Groups launch Justice for Sagay Massacre Network
Unidentified armed men shot and killed nine sugar workers in a Sagay City hacienda on October 20.
PM, file photo

MANILA, Philippines — Activist groups on Wednesday launched the Justice for Sagay Massacre Network to call for accountability for the deaths of nine sugar workers in Negros Occidental in October that authorities have blamed on the New People's Army.

The network also includes rights advocates and relatives of the victims of the October 20 shooting in a portion of a hacienda in Sagay City where members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers were conducting "bungkalan" or land cultivation. 

READ: A closer look at 'bungkalan', the supposedly sinister plot

The government has blamed the killings on the NSFW—saying the group had duped members into getting killed—and on the NPA, which has denied involvement and has pointed out that most of its members come from farming communities. 

"The Sagay 9 issue has been muddled with so many lies from a government scared to be exposed as champions and coddlers of private armies and landlords," Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said in a statement. "The military brandished their fictional destabilization plot narrative while the police trained its harassment team against the lawyers and rights defenders aiding the family of victims and survivors of the incident," she also said.

She said that despite these, "the root causes of landlessness and the dire situation of farmers and farmworkers in the country remain a neon sign staring authorities in the face."

Advocates of land reform and farmers' rights have pointed out that the "bungkalan," where unused plots of land are planted with crops to tide sugar workers and farmers over during lean seasons called "tiempo muerte" are a response to landlessness, especially on Negros Island.

READ: 'Bungkalan' caused by unaddressed social injustice, land rights group says

President Rodrigo Duterte has said the NPA is to be blamed for the killings and has said security personnel should evict farmers who occupy idle land. "If they resist while armed with a bolo, shoot them or else you will die because when they chop you up, you’re dead," he also said.

The government has since announced that it will be deploying more troops in areas where have been "lawless violence." Among those areas is Negros Occidental and among the incidents that the Palace said prompted the deployment is the Sagay killings.

Charges and countercharges

In late October, provincial police filed charges against NFSW members Rene Manlangit and Rogelio Arquillo for allegedly conspiring with an armed group in planning the attack that killed nine NFSW members.

Police have also filed a kidnapping and serious illegal detention complaint against lawyer Katherine Panguban, head of the National Union of People's Lawyers Women and Children's Committee, for allegedly holding a minor who was a witness to the killings and his mother against their will.

NUPL has since responded that the mother engaged them as counsel and that "this legal representation and turnover of custody are duly documented and are perfectly legal and in order." They added the boy "chose to be with his mother since he barely knows his biological father because the latter abandoned them for 10 years."

On Tuesday, the mother filed complaints against the boy's father and against local police for allegedly coercing the child to be a witness against members of the New People's Army.

Karapatan said it supports the filing of the countercharges as well as the formation of the Justice for Sagay Massacre Network.

"This will send out a clear message to perpetrators and the Duterte government, that the victims’ families will not take this sitting down. We will stand alongside them in their quest for justice, fighting resolutely against a government that mutes all forms of calls for accountability and truth," the rights group also said.

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