Police raids, arrests on Human Rights Day

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2020 - 12:00am

An unusual state-directed action even unthinkable maybe for certain sectors it might be. But yes, pre-dawn simultaneous raids/searches/arrests happened last Thursday in Metro Manila, as the world marked International Human Rights Day. Under the increasingly truculent Duterte administration, this is no longer surprising.

Seven persons suspected of leftist leanings were arrested in raids conducted while they were sleeping peacefully at home, allegedly, the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group said, “in compliance with the [CIDG] Director of intensifying police operations against loose firearms and criminal gangs.”

Six labor organizers and a journalist were taken away: Lady Ann Salem, editor of the online alternative news outlet Manila Today (a member of both the AlterMidya Network and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, both red-tagged by the NTF-ELCAC), and the worker activists Dennis Velasco, Joel Demate, Rodrigo Esparago, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Raiselle Astudillo and Jaymie Gregorio.

The police didn’t say they were members of criminal gangs, but took them into custody nonetheless. At once, their colleagues, human rights advocates and supportive organizations denounced the police actions and demanded the release of all those arrested. Yesterday, they held a caravan and indignation protest actions in front of Camp Crame, Camp Karingal and the Quezon City regional trial courts.

Also, the Inquirer report on the arrests noted that all the search/arrest warrants used were issued by Quezon City RTC Branch 89 Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert. She’s the same one who last year issued 58 warrants for police raids on the homes and offices of several activists in Negros and Manila, wherein more than 60 persons were arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives (some of the cases were dismissed). At the time, it was reported that then PNP Central Visayas regional chief Debold Sinas – now the PNP chief – had conferred with Judge Burgos-Villavert before she issued the warrants.

In a TV interview earlier, Sinas justified conducting the operations in Gestapo-style: in the wee hours of the morning while it was still dark. “Because, imagine, if we searched in the morning,” he explained, “the entire neighborhood would see us,” implying that the police operations had everything to hide.

Similarly as in the Negros-Manila cases, the CIDG said all of the seven were to be charged with violations of the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Law (RA 10591) and the Illegal Possession of Explosives Law (RA 9516). The raiding teams uniformly claimed they seized certain types of firearms, ammunitions and explosives in all the residences they had searched after breaking in. The arrested persons’ kin and human rights advocates inured to verifying such claims in several previous instances, cried out the raiders planted the armaments to be used as evidence in filing trumped-up charges.

Velasco’s partner, Diane Zapata, had the presence of mind and courage to make a two-minute video recording of the CIDG agents doing the search at 2 a.m., posted it on social media with the message, “Help!!! Raid at house now!!!” Later, as the raiders took Velasco with them, she asked where they were taking him. She said, “They told me they needed to bring Dennis in for a swab test, and then they left me.”

News of the raids and arrests broke out in media as a three-day Human Rights Summit, organized by the Department of Justice, was winding up at the International Convention Center. It was held supposedly in compliance with the Oct. 7, 2020 resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending technical assistance and capacity building to the Philippine government, “to strengthen its human rights and accountability measures” vis-a-vis extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses attributed mainly to state security forces.

At the summit’s opening on Dec. 7, President Duterte declared in a pre-recorded video message: “This affirms our serious commitment in honoring and fulfilling our treaty obligations and prioritizing the human rights agenda as a means to achieve our country’s sustainable development goals.”

But just four days earlier, defending his “war on drugs” from critics, Duterte said that the unabated proliferation of illegal drugs in the country was “not just my problem, that’s why I don’t care about human rights.” Addressing human rights defenders, he blurted out, “To this day, I say I don’t give a s**t with you. My order is still the same.”

So it seems that the President hasn’t got any new ideas to confront old problems except “still the same” order to shoot. On that same day (Dec. 3, but reported in the press only on Dec. 9), the President also announced in his televised address to the nation that there would be no more ceasefires or truce with the CPP-NPA and no more peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) until the end of his term in June 2022.

“I walked away from the talks because we cannot understand each other,” The STAR quoted him as saying. “I would say the ceasefire is dead and the peace talks between [the government and] the NDF, NPA, pati ‘yong isali na rin natin legal front nila, pati kayong lahat. I am identifying you because I have seen the records. You are really communists,” he added. Calling all the progressive activists tagged by the NTF-ELCAC as “criminals,” he warned that “before my term ends, I will name all of you, kayong lahat sa NDF.”

In that same address, the Inquirer quoted Duterte as claiming that the country’s communists are now criminals because, despite the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Act of 1957, the CPP continued to violate the law by fighting the government. He further claimed the CPP was engaged in conspiracy, wherein the act of one is the act of all.

Zeroing in on Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, leader of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives and senior deputy minority leader, Duterte falsely asserted, “The act of a soldier NPA is the act of Zarate, a congressman.” (Note that he said this even as he personally knows Zarate, who was a practicing lawyer in Davao City where Duterte was city mayor.)

Two progressive lawyers’ groups, mainly handling pro-bono cases, immediately came to Zarate’s defense, refuted Duterte’s statement and his view on conspiracy – the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and the much older Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

“This is a very radical and dangerous interpretation of a slew of laws, legal principles and jurisprudence,” warned NUPL president Edre U. Olalia. “Guilt by association does not replace presumption of innocence. Criminal liability is personal… and conspiracy is not a crime unless a specific law designates and penalizes it so.”

Olalia pointed out that Duterte was using an “unorthodox legal fiction…to politically justify red-tagging against principled and upright human beings” like Zarate, who is an NUPL adviser and who has “opted to take up the arms of the law rather than the law of arms.” Civilians, Olalia continued,”must not be the object of armed attack” by government forces.

For his part, FLAG head and former law dean at the De la Salle University, Jose Manuel Diokno, debunked Duterte’s personal attack on Zarate as “baseless and malicious.” Coming from the country’s highest official, he added, the attack “only subverts and hurts our already weak justice system.”

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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