‘Something’s terribly wrong’

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

An ecumenical group of influential religious leaders has signed a strong statement that sounded a clear call to the people to oppose the Duterte government’s unrelenting attacks on unarmed activists.

Referring to the “Bloody Sunday” operations in which nine activists were murdered in simultaneous pre-dawn police operations, with military support, in the Calabarzon region on March 7, the group One Voice was galvanized to speak out.

“By all logical measure, the serial raids and resulting killings were not encounters with communist rebels, but a fascistic targeting of social activists of open, legal and recognized cause-oriented groups,” One Voice said, adding: “They appear to be nothing but pre-meditated murders, with the search warrants and early morning raids dubious. Something is terribly wrong.”

One Voice included Catholic, Protestant and Aglipayan bishops, as well as missionary women religious and the head of the La Salle Brothers of East Asia. They took note of President Duterte’s order to the military and police to kill and forget human rights, and Calabarzon PNP chief Brig. Gen. Felipe Natividad’s acknowledgment that the operations were in compliance with Duterte’s Executive Order 70.

Extrajudicial killings have not resolved the drug problem and have actually exacerbated poverty and suffering for many Filipino families, the group pointed out, emphasizing: “To employ similar Tokhang operations on activists and leaders of the progressive Left is not only criminal, but an affront to the democratic rights of every Filipino.”

Enjoining the Filipino people to help in upholding “the common concern for the safety and welfare of those who are under attack,” One Voice concluded: “We condemn the calls for killings, when what the country needs is a government that heals.”

Another strong stand was defined by the Catholic Education Association of the Philippines (CEAP). Incidents such as “Bloody Sunday,” the CEAP said, “are consequences of pronouncements by those in government that have encouraged “rogue elements to violate fundamental human rights in the name of cracking down on the communist insurgency.”

Also addressing the Filipino people, the CEAP called out: “We must not tolerate impunity. We must reject this growing culture of death and normalization of killings in our society.” Rather, it asked the government to address the roots of social and economic problems that lead people to join the Left-led insurgency.

International concern was expressed by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as well as the delegation of the European Union based in Manila.

The Calabarzon killings were actually the latest of the killings that have provoked such condemnation. Still unresolved are the killings of nine Tumandok indigenous community members in similar police operations in Panay Island last Dec. 30, the attempted slaying of the Tumandoks’ lawyer in Iloilo, as well as the killing by police anti-drug operatives of the mayor of Calbayog City.

Reacting to calls for an impartial international probe, Malacañang says it must be allowed to do its own investigation first. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana complained that the killings had been reported to the United Nations ahead of an official investigation. “Our enemies are trying to preempt the investigation and paint us to be in the wrong,” he groused. Without providing evidence, the PNP national spokesperson claimed that the nine slain activists and those arrested in the raids were “(New People’s Army) members hiding behind the façade of being activists.”

But none of the many voices that expressed concern gave credence to the PNP claim. First to cry out in condemnation on Monday was human rights watchdog Karapatan, which called on all Filipinos to “stand with us in the struggle for justice and in defending people’s rights.” Karapatan urged the Commission on Human Rights to investigate the incidents and “ensure that justice and accountability is served for the victims of state terror and fascism.” Women’s groups, who on that day were celebrating International Women’s Day, called on the government to stop its attacks on activists.

On Tuesday, two groups of lawyers raised their particular concerns, addressed to trial court judges and to the Supreme Court.

A human rights lawyers’ group urged judges to be more circumspect in issuing search and arrest warrants because, as experience in the past few years has shown, such warrants “also become ‘death warrants.’” They noted that Manila RTC Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa had issued at least three search warrants, of which one respondent, Bayan-Cavite spokesperson Emmanuel Asuncion, was killed in his home-office in Dasmariñas City. It turned out that Dela Rosa had also issued a warrant used in the Panay Island operations resulting in the killings mentioned above.

Also on Tuesday 62 lawyers, representing the petitioners of 37 pleadings before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, pressed the tribunal to issue a temporary restraining order on the law’s implementation. They argued that the attempted killing of one in their ranks (Angelo Karlo Guillen, counsel for the Tumandok victims) and the “Bloody Sunday” killings “are not just a condemnable assault on a member of the legal profession and civil society actors, but also a stab to the heart of the Constitution.”

Two leading national newspapers, The STAR and the Inquirer, ran editorials on the Calabarzon killings.

Titled “Bloody Sunday,” The STAR March 10 editorial pointed out:

“After admitting recently before the (UN) Human Rights Council that ‘lapses’ have been committed in the brutal campaign against illegal drugs, the government may also have to look into similar lapses or abuses in counterinsurgency operations… Two days after President Duterte announced in a speech that he had instructed the military and police, in case of armed encounters, to ‘really kill’ and finish off communist rebels, nine people were shot dead in the region that encompasses the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon.”

The editorial ended thus: “The government is professing adherence to the rule of law and promising investigations to ferret out the truth. Lethal violence cannot be the SOP [standard operating procedure] in law enforcement in this country.”

Citing the same speech of President Duterte, the Inquirer March 11 editorial, titled “Unending bloodbath,” provided what it termed “direct and unequivocal” quotations: “Make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive… Forget about human rights. That’s my order.”

Moreover, the editorial said National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. backed up Duterte’s order. It quoted Esperon as saying in a televised briefing, in Filipino: “Sa talumpati ng ating Pangulo, nabanggit niya na ubusin na lahat ang NPA (New People’s Army) at ‘wag mag-alala sa human rights. Tama naman ’yon.”

“Police and military operatives did as they were told – and proceeded to target even non-combatants,” the editorial noted. It quoted this tweet (on March 9) by former vice president Jejomar Binay: “Activists are not armed combatants. There is a very big difference. And when officials encourage, condone and even defend the killing of unarmed civilians, there is a clear breakdown in civil governance. We have become a lawless State.”

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