Groups raise red-tagging cases to CHR, Ombudsman
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - February 15, 2020 - 12:00am

Protectors of the people against the abuses and excesses by those in positions of power. That’s the role assigned by the 1987 Constitution to two independent investigating and monitoring offices that it created, recognizing and enshrining a powerful message arising from the decades-long people’s struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.

One is the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The charter endows it with powers to investigate “all forms of human rights involving civil and political rights;” provide appropriate legal measures to protect the human rights of “all persons within the Philippines, as well as Filipinos abroad”; and to provide “preventive measures and legal aid services to the underprivileged whose human rights have been violated or need protection.”

The other body is the Office of the Ombudsman. It is mandated to “act promptly on complaints filed in any form or manner against public officials or employees of the Government,” or any of its instrumentalities, and “in appropriate cases, notify the complainants of the action taken and the result thereof.”  On its own, the Ombudsman can investigate any public official’s or employee’s “act or omission” when such “appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.”

Over the years of their existence, both the CHR and the Office of the Ombudsman – their respective heads appointed by a succession of presidents – have shown, in certain instances, that they have acted according to their mandates. Yet, in many other instances, they have fallen short of public expectations to varying degrees.

Now, these two constitutional offices are being called upon to exercise their respective powers and functions as “protectors of the peopleO vis-à-vis  the Duterte administration’s intensifying campaign of vilification (mainly red-tagging) and repression by state security forces of progressive people’s organizations and activists, human rights defenders and workers including religious missionaries, lawyers, teachers, and advocates.

On Feb. 12, a newly formed “Defend Mindanao” group formally asked the CHR, through its chair Jose Luis “Chito” Gascon, to look into and act on the trumped-up charges filed against a huge group of 466 persons coming from peasant and indigenous people’s communities, church and human rights workers, and women’s rights advocates in Northern Mindanao and the Caraga regions.

Among them, 20 are being singled out and charged with kidnapping, serious illegal detention, grave threats and grave coercion, and intimidation; the charge sheet even cites them for “robbery with force upon things (?)” and “destructive arson.” All of the 466 respondents are being implicated in a December 2018 military offensive by the New People’s Army against AFP forces in Sibagat, Agusan del Sur. Denying everything, they have taken a common stand that the charges are fabricated, constituting a “form of judicial harassment” and a reprisal against their communities and their advocacy work.

Defend Mindanao is calling out the Duterte government for widely using a scheme started by previous administrations in carrying out extrajudicial killings: “indiscriminately lumping together [NPA] armed combatants and civilians, thereby considering civilians, including activists, as fair targets of the military’s combat operations and “legal offensives.” (The latter is a term coined by the Arroyo government, referring to the filing against civilians of criminal cases involving “national security.”)

The Caraga region, the group pointed out, has become a “factory of several fabricated charges heaped upon activists throughout the country.” This has grown worse through the implementation of Executive Order 70 (signed by Duterte in December 2018) through the National Task Force-ELCAC (End the Local Communist Armed Conflict).

Earlier, on Feb. 9, the CHR had urged the government anew to rescind EO 70 because “it has been consistently used to justify threats and intimidation of individuals and organizations working for the improvement of human rights and welfare of various marginalized sectors of society.” The response of NTF-ELCAC spokesperson Maj. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. was to hit back at the CHR for “continuously parrot(ing) the lies of CPP front organizations… in sync with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights investigation.”  

The day before the Mindanao activists went to the CHR, it was Ibon Foundation (an independent research and analysis group) that lodged administrative charges against National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., PCOO undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, and Parlade before the Office of the Ombudsman.

The charges, filed Feb. 11, include abuse of authority, negligence in the performance of duties as public officials, unprofessional conduct, and disregard for the public interest.

“These officials must be held accountable for their baseless accusations that the activists are terrorists and sympathizers of the [CPP-NPA],” Ibon avers, recounting that Esperon, at a Malacañang press conference in March 2019, named it as among the Philippine NGOs supported by the Belgian government to “act as legal fronts for the CPP-NPA.” Badoy recently repeated Esperon’s claim on the Cignal TV program “The Chiefs”; this was after IBON’s research head, Rosario Guzman, checked the facts behind the PCOO’s “Duterte Legacy” initiative and found them wanting.

 In February 2019, when Parlade and Badoy went on a road show in Europe, they accused Ibon of supplying “fabricated reports” to the United Nations and the European Union. Early this month, Parlade was reported to be in Australia accusing the policy research group of “terrorist financing.”

`Executive director of IBON Sonny Africa modestly justifies their complaint as “one little contribution to stop this [red tagging] practice which usually leads to more serious human rights abuses, such as surveillance, illegal arrest, and killings of activists.” 

Human rights lawyers have been making it clear that organizations and their members whom state security forces tag as “fronts of the CPP-NPA” cannot be charged and prosecuted in court on that basis. That is simply because the CPP ceased to be “illegal” after the repeal – in 1992 yet! – of the Anti-Subversion Act of 1951.

Nor can these organizations and persons be legally considered as “terrorists” because the government has so far been unable to secure a regional trial court ruling – after due proceedings as required by law – declaring the CPP and the NPA as terrorist organizations. Just this week, the Department of Justice salvaged and refiled its petition yet again after this was dismissed by a Manila court last December.

This explains why the AFP-PNP raiding/arresting teams routinely plant firearms and explosives in legal offices, residences, or vehicles where they arrest persons they arbitrarily call “enemies of the state.” The scheme makes it easy to charge the arrested persons with “illegal possession of firearms and explosives” and to detain them indefinitely through denial of bail.

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