Helping feed the poor, Iloilo activist is shot dead

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

It shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did. And having had to stay at home under the long COVID-19 lockdown, I am deeply saddened… and, justifiably, angry.

At 9:27 a.m. last Thursday, a Human Rights Alert text came up on my cellphone. It said: “Activist Jory Porquia shot dead this morning in Sto. Niño Norte, Arevalo [district], Iloilo City. Witnesses reported hearing several gunshots and saw unidentified men wearing masks at the crime scene.”

“A week before the incident,” the text alert added, “Jory Porquia received several harassments from the police for conducting feeding programs and relief operations for the urban poor communities and Bayan Muna members in Iloilo City gravely affected by the COVID-19 crisis.”   

I had known Jory Porquia for more than 20 years. He was a founding member of Bayan Muna, the party-list organization I helped establish in September 1999 and have headed until now. Jory, whose full name is Jose Reynaldo Porquia, was Bayan Muna’s coordinator in Iloilo City for many years. A highly reliable, indefatigable activist, he always associated closely with the workers and the poor.

Why shouldn’t I have been shocked that Jory had become another victim of a political extrajudicial killing? His photograph and name appeared on posters red-tagging well-known leaders of the people’s movements in Panay; these posters were put out in Iloilo City twice – in December 2018, again in March 2019. But no harm came to Jory then, even if it had become commonplace for state security forces to harass activists and brand them as communists before the latter would be found dead.

Yet his killing at this particular time did shock me. The new angle was that the Iloilo City police were hot after Jory because, with Bayan-Panay, he was doing a feeding program cum education campaign on COVID-19. Police Major Engelbert Banquello, the Molo District Police Station chief, had already blocked the feeding program that he was carrying out in San Juan, Molo two weeks ago.

Why did they have to kill him? That instant question popped up in my head.

 An answer came from Visayas Bayan Muna vice president and former congressman Siegfred D. Deduro. In his statement on Facebook on Thursday, he stated:

“This is part of the impunity in political killings aimed at terrorizing activists critical of the Duterte administration…. Though [Iloilo City] Mayor Jerry Treñas welcomed the Bayan Muna initiative, assisting the LGU in educating and feeding quarantined residents, that did not sit well with the PNP. They prevent activists from doing volunteer work in fighting the pandemic, even to the extent of spreading blatant lies that the food served by the activists is contaminated with the COVID-19 virus.”

On inquiry, I was informed Major Banquello was the culprit in spreading that vilification.

Jory had survived Ferdinand Marcos’ martial-law dictatorship, which he had opposed as a leader of the League of Filipino Students. For a while, he served as member of the Cory Aquino administration’s National Youth Commission. As an OFW in the Middle East and later in China, he helped organize Filipino migrant workers. He continued that self-imposed task after returning home. As Bayan Muna coordinator he developed good relations with local political leaders in Panay. In 2007 he ran for election to the city council, unsuccessfully, under Treñas’ slate.

Ironically, Jory Porquia didn’t survive what human rights and legal quarters, here and overseas, have increasingly decried as an “undeclared” state of martial law under the present administration.

Perhaps his murder has to do with the unresolved, or unsolved, question of the continuing armed struggle in the country? But why should unarmed civilians, citizens peaceably exercising their right to criticize and express dissent, be made to pay for the failure to address the problem? Even when they are engaged in such simple tasks as sharing food with those who don’t have any?

 In his address to the nation on April 24, President Duterte once again threatened to declare martial law, should the New People’s Army “continue to kill my soldiers.” He hastened to add: “… and there will be no turning back.” Last Monday, invoking the same reason (a matter that the Commission on Human Rights is still looking into), he told the nation: “There [are] no more peace talks to talk about. I am not and I will never be ready for any round of talks [with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, which he sought to restart last December].”

The keen eyes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, have been focusing on the Philippines, as she has a mandate from the UN Human Rights Council to present a comprehensive written report on our country’s human rights situation at the next UNHRC session in July, this year.

In fact, Bachelet recently raised alarm over “numerous reports… that police and other security forces have been using excessive and, at times, lethal force to make people abide by lockdown and curfews.” 

She reminded governments that “emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power.”

“Certain rights, including the right to life, the prohibition against torture and other ill-treatments, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained,” Bachelet emphasized, “continue to apply in all circumstances.”

Picking up from the UN human rights top official, the Australian section of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) recently issued a strong statement. It called out the Duterte government for “prefer(ring) to increase militarization” instead of waging an “all-out war against the coronavirus through improved health facilities, and increasing testing and protective equipment for frontline workers.”

 ICHRP-Australia also expressed concern that the government has ignored Bachelet’s earlier call and the advice by a Senate committee to release prisoners in overcrowded jails who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. Likewise, the group decried the arbitrary arrest of former Anakpawis party-list congressman Ariel Casilao and activist volunteers for peasant organizations on their way to deliver relief packages to urban poor residents of Norzagaray, Bulacan. Detained for three days and charged with violations of the enhanced community quarantine, the group has been released on bail.   

The Australian group’s statement, naming as reference Sr. Patricia Fox (remember her?), calls on the Australian government to stop its military aid to the Philippines, as it urges President Duterte to stop the suppression and vilification of legal organizations and to reconsider his oft-repeated militaristic public statements.

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Email: [email protected]

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