Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Philippines

Political context

The year 2008 was marked in the Philippines by continued counterinsurgency operations against leftist rebels and Muslim separatists. In particular, the situation in the southern region of Mindanao deteriorated with intensified conflict between Government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Peace talks, which had resulted in a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA) after eleven years of negotiations, failed when the Supreme Court issued a restraining order on August 4, 2008 to halt the signing of the agreement, following protests and petitions against it. The opposition came from Muslims, Christians, "Lumads"1 and other sectors of Philippine society who felt they had not been consulted on the Mo A and were going to be adversely affected by the creation of the "Bangsamoro Juridical Entity" (BJE).2 Infuriated by the Mo A not being signed, some MILF commanders initiated attacks on civilian populations and engaged Government forces. This violence led to the deaths both of Government soldiers and MILF rebels, to the indiscriminate killing of civilians as well as to the internal displacement of over 390,000 people by mid-October.3 On October 14, 2008, the Supreme Court declared the draft Mo A unconstitutional, which effectively put an end to any hope of peacefully resolving the conflict in Mindanao in the short term. This increased militarisation not only led to the deaths of innocent civilians, but also created a dangerous environment for human rights defenders and humanitarian aid workers, who were either caught up in the fighting between Government and MILF forces, or were directly targeted.

Although enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions were at lower levels in 2008 than in previous years, these violations continued to be the norm. The victims of such attacks included left-wing political opponents, human rights activists seeking to expose violations committed by the authorities, religious leaders, leaders and members of peasant or fishers' organisations or women's rights groups, as well as labour and trade union activists. The Government also continued to implement its policy of political repression against any legitimate criticism or dissident voice considered to be linked to, or at least supportive of, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA).

Impunity for such violations remained a major problem in 2008, with inadequate investigations into human rights offences committed by military and police officers, as the perpetrators continued to go unpunished. Although there had been a glimmer of hope when the Supreme Court promulgated the writ of amparo and the writ of habeas data in 2007, in 2008 the courts routinely dismissed such applications.4 Furthermore, a decision by the Supreme Court on March 25, 2008 increased the level of impunity by upholding and broadening the scope of the doctrine of executive privilege, permitting the Government to withhold certain categories of information from the public, courts and the Congress. This climate of impunity not only continued to impede the work of human rights defenders, it also put their physical integrity at considerable risk.

Human rights defenders targeted by the authorities as "enemies of the State" and under attack by non-State actors

In the context of counter-insurgency and the fight against terrorism, the authorities continued to criminalise human rights activities, branding human rights organisations as "enemies of the State" or "terrorist organisations", thus rendering them legitimate targets. Although the number of extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders decreased in 2008, other forms of harassment and intimidation increased. Human rights defenders were frequently subjected to surveillance, arrest and arbitrary detention and, in some cases, were included by the authorities in "orders of battle", which identified individuals and organisations as fronts of the communist underground, thus encouraging army and paramilitary elements involved in counter-insurgency operations to carry out acts of violence and reprisals against them.5

Organisations seeking to expose the authorities' human rights violations were particular targets for stigmatisation and attacks. For example, in July and August 2008, members of Ilocos Human Rights Alliance (IHRA) were threatened, harassed and subjected to a vilification campaign on a radio programme, "The Soldier's Voice" (Timek ti Soldado). The organisation and the human rights organisation Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights (KARAPATAN) were labelled a "communist front" accused of seeking to "protect and defend the rights of their fellow NPAs". Various members of KARAPATAN who were seeking to expose atrocities committed by the military were also targeted. For example, from June 2008, Ms. Zara Alvarez and Mr. Fred Cana, both officials of KARAPATAN-Negros, together with Mr. Erwin Sabijon, Chairperson of the peasant organisation KAUGMAON, in Oriental Negros first district, were threatened, harassed and the target of a campaign of violence, which included burning effigies of Messrs. Cana and Sabijon in a military-sponsored rally on June 14, 2008. These actions came following Mr. Cana and Mr. Sabijon's efforts to expose violations committed by soldiers in Negros Oriental. Similarly, five KARAPATAN-Central Visayas human rights workers, Ms. Concordia Oyao, Ms. Vimarie Arcilla, Ms. Jean Suarez and Messrs. Dennis Abarrientos and Paz Silva, received threatening messages on August 21, 2008 after their involvement in exposing military human rights violations.6 Furthermore, on September 26, 2008, Ms. Helen Asdolo, Secretary General of the women's rights group, the National Alliance of Women's Organisations in the Philippines (GABRIELA), in Southern Tagalog, and Ms. Amy Sto. Tomas, GABRIELA-Cavite Chairperson and GABRIELA Women's Party Coordinator for Cavite, were falsely charged with "arson" and "conspiracy to commit rebellion" in relation to the burning of a Globe cell site in the town of Lemery in Batangas province on August 2, 2008 (the "Batangas case"), an incident for which the NPA had already claimed responsibility. The two women were also charged with "multiple murder" in connection with an alleged NPA attack on March 3, 2006 in Oriental Mindoro. On that day, GABRIELA members and leaders had been conducting a number of activities, including educational discussions and forums, in preparation for the International Women's Day on March 8.7 Seventy-one others, including leaders and spokespersons of civil society organisations and political activists from Southern Tagalog, were also charged in the same multiple murder case. These included members of KARAPATAN and peasant leaders.8 The lodging of these fabricated charges was believed to be an attempt by authorities to silence and impede activists from conducting their human rights activities in the region.

If not targeted by the authorities, human rights defenders were at risk of attack from non-State actors. For example, on September 14, 2008, Ms. Merlie Mendoza and Ms. Esperancita Hupida, both aid-workers working for the rehabilitation of communities in war zones, were kidnapped in Basilan, Mindanao. The kidnappers were reportedly an armed group, believed to be linked with "Abu Sayyaf ", an Islamist separatist group. On October 30, 2008, Ms. Hupida was released by her captors, reportedly after they demanded payment for "board and lodging". Ms. Mendoza was released on November 14, 2008.9

Land rights activists still a target for repression

As in previous years, 2008 was marked by repression of those asserting their rights under the agrarian reform programme (CARP) as well as those advocating for land rights, including those of the indigenous minorities. Farmers and communities campaigning for agrarian reform were targeted and harassed by soldiers. In early 2008, Government soldiers reportedly displaced around 10,000 anti-CARP farmers in Quezon, burning the houses of and displacing at least 25 peasant families in Nasugbu and Batangas who were advocating for the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill – also known as House Bill 3059 – which was proposed to replace the CARP.10 Members and leaders of peasant groups, in particular the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP) and its allied organisations, were also the victims of harassment, trumped up charges and arrests, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. For instance, on July 5, 2008, 13 peasants, all members of PAMACAD, an organisation affiliated with KMP, were arrested and accused of illegal logging. Four of the thirteen, namely Messrs. Romulo Villanueva, Santiago Antipuesto, Jaime Lamberto and Jose Perez, remained in detention at the end of 2008. Similarly, on August 31, 2008, Messrs. Renato Alvarez, Franco Romeroso, Neshley Cresino, Felix Nardo, Bernardo Derain, Jomel Igana, Ms. Yolanda Caraig and Ms. Janice Javier, eight peasant right activists, were arrested on their return from a meeting to discuss peasant activities. They were detained for two days, during which they reportedly suffered inhuman and cruel treatment. Subsequently, the eight were also charged with multiple murder in relation to the alleged NPA ambush in Mindoro Oriental.11 Besides, on October 30, 2008, three men identifying themselves as operatives of the Criminal Investigation and Detention Group (CIDG) abducted Mr. Norbeto Murillo, technical consultant for the farmers' organisation, Life and Food for Leyte Evacuees (LFLE). The abduction occurred outside the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) building where Mr. Murillo had attended a meeting regarding a LFLE land claim. On October 31, 2008, the Philippines National Police (PNP) confirmed that Mr. Murillo was being detained in Camp Crame in Quezon City. He was then transferred to the Manila City Jail, where he remained at the end of 2008. A few days later, on November 6, 2008, Mr. Danillo N. Qualbar, Public Information Officer of Compostela Farmers Association (CFA), an affiliate of KMP, and Cluster Coordinator of "Bayan Muna" (People First) Party List, was assassinated on his way home by unidentified gunmen in the district of Osmeña, in Compostela Valley, Mindanao.12 On September 17, 2008, Mr. James Balao, a researcher of the Cordillera People's Alliance, an independent federation of indigenous peoples' organisations, disappeared in Baguio City. Prior to his disappearance, Mr. Balao was reportedly under surveillance and was believed to have been included in the military's "order of battle" list. It is believed that he was targeted due to his work in favour of the rights of indigenous people, in particular his work on a project relating to land rights and the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.13 As of the end of 2008, Mr. Balao remained disappeared. However, the Cordillera People's Alliance was reportedly informed that he was still alive and was being held by State security forces at an unknown location.

Whilst many of the incidents were committed by the PNP or the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), some attacks were attributed to non-State actors, including landowners and their estate personnel or armed goons. For example, on June 6, 2008, Mr. Armando Dolorosa, Vice-President of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW) and the leader of an agrarian reform group in Manapla, Negros Occidental, was gunned down in his house by three masked men. It is believed that his assassination is related to the implementation of the agrarian reform programme, pursuant to which Mr. Dolorosa had been granted land ownership certificates in 2007 in relation to part of a sugar estate. Since then, Mr. Dolorosa had been receiving death threats from men, whom his wife identified as "planters".

Labour rights and trade union activists on the front line

In 2008, those defending the rights of workers and trade unions frequently came under attack, with fatal consequences in some instances. For instance, on July 19, 2008, Mr. Maximo Baranda, the former Chairperson of Compostela Workers Association (CWA), an affiliate of the labour movement May First Movement (KMU), was assassinated by three unidentified men in San Jose, Compostela Valley. Before his murder, Mr. Baranda had served as CWA adviser in its Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with management.14

Lawyers working on labour rights and trade union issues were also targeted. On October 23, 2008, Attorney Remigio Saladero, chief legal counsel of KMU, Board Chairperson of the Pro-Labour Legal Assistance Centre (PLACE) and member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the National Union of People's Lawyers, was arrested on the basis of a defective warrant by members of the PNP. His office was searched and his computer and mobile phone confiscated. Atty. Saladero and 72 others were charged with "multiple murder" and "multiple frustrated murder".15 It is believed the charges were manufactured to harass and intimidate Atty. Saladero for his work as a labour rights and trade union rights defender. Atty. Saladero had already been targeted in the past, predominantly by the military for providing legal counsel to suspected NPA members. Further, the organisation PLACE was subjected to harassment and surveillance by unidentified men believed to be military agents. The attack on Atty. Saladero was seen as a broader attack against the legal profession, given that he was simply exercising his profession. On February 5, 2009, the Calapan City Regional Trial Court quashed the charges of multiple murder and frustrated murder and ordered Atty. Saladero's release on technical grounds, along with five other labour rights leaders from Southern Tagalog.16 However, barely one week after his release, another murder case was filed against Atty. Saladero and four other activists, who filed a petition for writ of amparo at the Supreme Court on February 16, 2009.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200817

Names of human rights defendersViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Armando DolorosaExtrajudicial killingUrgent Appeal PHL 001/0608/OBS 099June 11, 2008
Atty. Remigio Saladero Jr.Arbitrary detention / Judicial proceedingsUrgent Appeal PHL 002/1008/OBS 175October 30, 2008
Mr. Norbeto MurilloEnforced disappearanceUrgent Appeal PHL 003/1008/OBS 177October 31, 2008
Arbitrary detention / Judicial proceedings / Ill-treatmentsUrgent Appeal PHL 003/1008/OBS 177.1November 6, 2008
Mr. Danilo N. QualbarAssassinationUrgent Appeal PHL 004/1108/OBS 201November 26, 2008

1 Lumads are indigenous peoples who did not convert to Islam.

2 Under the proposed Mo A, the Government and the BJE were to exercise "shared authority and responsibility" over the Bangsamoro homeland. In particular, the BJE was to have jurisdiction over the management, conservation, development, protection, utilisation and disposition of all natural resources within its territory.

3 Figures from International Crisis Group Policy Briefing, The Philippines: the Collapse of Peace in Mindanao, October 23, 2008. Other organisations report that over 600,000 people have been displaced as a result of military operations. See, for example, the National Alliance of Women's Organisations in the Philippines (GABRIELA).

4 A small number of applications were granted but, overall, the anticipated impact of the new rules did not materialise.

5 See Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).

6 See the Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights (KARAPATAN).

7 See GABRIELA.

8 Such as Ms. Luz Baculo, Secretary General of the May First Movement (KMU) in Southern Tagalog, Ms. Doris Cuario, Southern Tagalog Secretary General of KARAPATAN, Ms. Dina Capetillo, KARAPATAN Batangas Spokesperson, Ms. Karen Ortiz, Deputy Secretary General of the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace in Cavite, as well as Atty. Remigio Saladero (see below).

9 See FLAG.

10 See the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP).

11 See KARAPATAN.

12 As of the end of 2008, an enquiry into Mr. Qualbar's death was ongoing.

13 See FLAG and KARAPATAN.

14 As of the end of 2008, an enquiry into Mr. Baranda's death was ongoing. See KARAPATAN.

15 See above.

16 Namely Messrs. Emmanuel Dionida, Rogelio Galit, Nestor San Jose, Crispin Zapanta and Leonardo Arceta.

17 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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