Groups laud HOR approval of rights defenders, COMELEC employees’ bills

Two bills approved by the House of Representatives (HOR) on January 17 earned nods from groups supporting their enactment and asked the Senate to immediately pass pending counterpart proposals.

In separate statements on Monday, the group Karapatan lauded the passage of the bill giving protection to human rights defenders (HRDs) while election commission employees hailed the approval of the proposed law strengthening Commission on Elections (COMELEC) field offices.

The HOR approved on third reading House Bill (HB) 10576 entitled “An Act Defining the Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Human Rights Defenders, Declaring State Responsibilities, and Instituting Effective Mechanisms for the Protection and Promotion of These Rights and Freedoms.”

The chamber also passed HB 10579, “An Act Strengthening the Field Offices of the Commission on Elections by Upgrading and Creating Certain Positions,” amending Batas Pambansa Bilang 881, the country’s old Omnibus Election Code.

Long overdue

Karapatan said it lauds HB 10576’s principal authors who want to give protection to HRDs as well as to other rights advocates such as lawyers, church people, journalists, development workers and freedom of expression and association advocates.

Maraming salamat, (Albay) Rep. Edcel Lagman, (Quezon City) Rep. Kit Belmonte, (Bayan Muna) Rep. Karlos Ysagani Zarate (and the rest of the) Makabayan bloc!” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

In a statement, Lagman said, “The enactment of the Human Rights Defenders Act will put an end to the prevailing impunity on the extrajudicial killings and extreme harassments of HRD.”

Lagman said the following are the proposed measure’s salient provisions:

  • Defines HRD as “any person, who individually or in association with others, acts or seeks to act to protect, promote, or strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, at the local, national, regional, and international levels.” This definition is broad and inclusive enough to cover HRDs in both government and private sector who may not be bona fide connected to any human rights organization.
  • Embodies the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders such as the rights to: form associations and to peaceful assembly; represent and advocate; privacy; effective remedy and full reparation; and freedom from intimidation, reprisal, defamation, and stigmatization among others.
  • Prohibits all public authorities from participating, by acts of commission or omission, in violating human rights and fundamental freedoms. Subordinate employees have the right and duty to refuse any order from their superiors that will cause the commission of acts that contravene their duty to protect, uphold, and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. Such refusal shall not constitute a ground for any administrative sanction.
  • Strengthens the obligation of public authorities to conduct investigations on suspected human rights violations of HRDs.
  • Prohibits the public authority offender from invoking presumption of regularity in the performance of duty which presumption is commonly used as a veneer to conceal accountability for violation of human rights and freedoms. The prohibition is consistent with the rule on the Writ of Amparo.
  • Mandates government agencies to enforce and institutionalize command responsibility and impose sanctions against errant superiors in both military and civilian agencies as provided under existing laws and executive issuances.
  • Directs public authorities to adopt the human rights-based approach to governance and development including in counter-insurgency and anti-terror programs and policies.
  • Seeks to strengthen the Witness Protection Program of the Commission on Human Rights and mandates the Commission to provide sanctuaries for high-risk HRDs, particularly those who have filed formal complaints against high-ranking government officials.
  • Ensures respect for the principle of non-refoulement or the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country where they are likely to be subjected to persecution.
  • States that in exercising their rights under the Act, HRDs shall be subject only to limitations that are prescribed by law, in accordance with international human rights obligations and standards, are reasonable, necessary and proportionate, and are solely for the purpose of securing the recognition and respect for the rights and fundamental freedoms of others and meeting the reasonable requirements of public order and general welfare in a democratic society.
  • Creates an independent collegial body to be known as the Human Rights Defenders Committee composed of one Chairperson and six members. The Chairperson shall be selected by the Commissioners of the CHR from among themselves in an en banc session. The six members shall be jointly nominated by representatives of human rights organizations. The nominees shall be appointed by the CHR not by the President to underscore the Committee’s independence of the Executive.
  • States 10 guiding principles that shall be adhered to in implementing the Act and in formulating the corresponding rules and regulations. These include among others: adherence to the rule of law; active participation of HRDs in formulating, implementing and evaluating HRD protection programs; periodic risks assessments; confidentiality of personal data collected on HRDs; special attention to protection of women and LGBT HRD rights; continuous training of the Committee Secretariat; sustained adequate resources; and transparent and equitable resource allocation.
  • Expressly provides that all provisions of the HRD Protection law shall be construed to achieve its objectives and that all doubts in the implementation and interpretation of these provisions shall be resolved in favor of the HRD.

Karapatan said it is high time Congress fully enacts the measure, as “[h]uman rights defenders were killed, arrested, detained, red-tagged and threatened for so long, and a law to criminalize these acts has been long overdue.”

“We call on the Senate, specifically Sen. Richard Gordon who chairs the Committee on Human Rights, and Senate President Tito Sotto to expedite the hearings and pass the proposed HRD Bill of Sen. Leila de Lima,” Palabay said.


Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections Employees Union (COMELEC-EU) said its 5,000 members nationwide are “overjoyed” by HB 10579’s passage by the HOR.

The poll body’s personnel added the development is “a booster shot,” lifting morale as they prepare for May’s local and national elections.

COMELEC-EU national president Mac Ramirez said the bill will not only benefit COMELEC employees but will help ensure clean and honest elections in the future.

Principal author and ACT Teachers Party Rep. France Castro said the bill is aimed at correcting COMELEC employees’ lower salary grades and to reform the poll body’s field offices.

Castro acknowledged COMELEC-EU’s role in campaigning for the bill, members of which suffered low wages for many years.

Castro added that COMELEC personnel, whose workloads increase during election years, deserve salary increases and regularization as employees.

Both Castro and Ramirez likewise appealed to the Senate to fast track the approval of the proposed measure’s Senate counterpart. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘Red-tagging is anathema to a democracy’

“We emphasize – red-tagging is anathema to a democracy. The promotion and conduct of such acts attempt to invalidate, muffle and silence the views and work of human rights defenders, activists, and advocates of social causes, and the peoples’ exercise of basic rights and fundamental freedoms.”Cristina Palabay, Secretary General, Karapatan

Progressive groups hold protest on Rodrigo Duterte 4th year anniversary as president

Human rights advocates and activists held a protest activity on the 4th anniversary of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency last June 30 at the Commission on Human Rights compound in Quezon City.

Despite filing of charges, military refuses civilian jail for Alexa Pacalda

They could not force her to say she indeed is a surrendered New People’s Army (NPA) fighter, so criminal charges were finally filed against human rights worker Alexa Pacalda at the Quezon Provincial Prosecutor’s Office last Saturday.

Seven days after her supposed arrest last September 14 in General Luna town and long before the 36-hour deadline for filing of criminal charges, the 201st Infantry Brigade-Philippine Army (IBPA) charged Alexa with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition in what the military obviously planned to be a secret inquest proceeding last September 21. Her lawyer and family were not informed.

But it did not turn out exactly the way the military wanted it.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers’ (NUPL) Atty. Kristina Conti was nearby, giving a lecture on human rights reporting to dozens of Southern Tagalog journalists, when she found about the inquest proceeding. Journalists who attended the training received a tip that the young human rights defender would be taken to Lucena City from the military camp in Calauag town where she is detained. After a phone call from her NUPL colleague and Alexa’s lawyer Maria Sol Taule, Conti rushed to the Quezon Provincial Capitol compound where the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office is located.

She was met by Alexa’s father Arnulfo and Karapatan-Quezon Chapter colleagues, gratitude and relief on their faces. Conti’s entrance at the fiscal’s office, however, was different. The three lawyers from the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO) tried to hide it but betrayed their surprise by asking where she came from, appearing all of a sudden when the inquest should have been secret.

A local activist (left) takes a selfie with a military intelligence operative (second from left) at the Quezon Provincial Prosecutor’s Office)

The mood inside the old and stuffy building became tenser when Alexa’s fellow activists called out the many intelligence operatives who kept on taking photos and videos of them. “Kanina ka pa kuha nang kuha ng photo ko, a. Para di ka na mahirapan, selfie na lang tayo,” said one to an intelligence officer in civilian clothes. (You’ve been taking lots of photos of me. Why don’t we take a selfie to make it easier for you?) The latter tried to play it cool and obliged but the mood did not lighten. Pretty quickly, more intelligence operatives, four of them, entered the building, apparently to assist their comrades.

Arnulfo Pacalda (left) listening to military personnel inside the Quezon Provincial Prosecutor’s Office.

All the while, Arnulfo and his young son with him kept their cool. As the lawyers were wrangling inside the fiscal’s room, they were seated at a distance. At exactly three o’clock, Arnulfo’s phone sounded, reciting the Catholic’s Three O’Clock Prayer. He stepped out of the room, went to a corner and finished the prayer with his head bowed.

Inside the prosecutor’s office, Conti was still being quizzed by the most senior of the three JAGO officers. She was asked if she is a local lawyer, explaining her sudden appearance. She in turn badgered her counterpart where Alexa was so she could consult with her client. The soldiers refused, even when the fiscal herself asked. “She is nearby. But there are security concerns,” the soldiers cryptically said. “But a lawyer must have access to her client, doesn’t she?” Conti shot back. The fiscal agreed and Alexa was finally brought inside.

Arnulfo and Alexa embrace at the Lucena City Regional Trial Court lobby.

Arnulfo and Alexa’s younger brother rushed to hug her as she entered the building. The embraces were long and tight. Beside them, Conti was smiling. When it was her time to speak to her, Conti asked, “Naaalala mo ako?” to which Alexa replied “Yes” and smiled back. Alexa had been Conti’s paralegal on some human rights cases they both collaborated on in the recent past.

Alexa and her younger brother embrace inside the Lucena RTC building.

Alexa looks nowhere near that of the female NPA fighter toting an AK-47 assault rifle and undergoing military training on the photos being shared on social media. (The photos appeared online only when Alexa’s video was released by her lawyer refuting giddy claims by her captors they had another surrenderee.) Alexa is hardly five feet tall and is very slight of built.

Arnulfo and Alexa Pacalda outside the prosecutor’s office.

Even with Alexa already inside the prosecutor’s office, the JAGO and the soldiers still refused to give Conti time to consult with her and her family in private. What followed were argumentations that went in circles. Finally, with the public prosecutor’s prodding, the JAGO relented and Conti and the Pacaldas were given 15 minutes at a dark corner of the building, surrounded by file cabinets outside of the female toilet.

Atty. Conti and the Pacaldas in a private consultation.

Back at the prosecutor’s office, Alexa was asked by Conti if she indeed signed the so-called surrender papers the JAGO submitted as part of its evidentiary documents. The young prisoner replied, “I do not remember anything.” Conti later told Kodao that even if she did, Alexa was obviously under extreme duress after being captured by the soldiers, tortured with sleep and food deprivation for 30 hours and forced to sign the proffered papers they told her would lead to her freedom. The same was true when her father Arnulfo was made to sign a document the Philippine Army said would help his daughter regain her freedom.

Conti asked the prosecutor if Alexa could already be committed to a civilian jail facility. The soldiers objected. The fiscal asked police officers present on who had authority over the prisoner. The police said the soldiers merely informed them two days after the abduction that Alexa had been in their custody but was never in the PNP’s. The fiscal then said Alexa’s lawyers had to file a motion first before deciding on Conti’s request. (Alexa’s lawyer and family filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus at the Supreme Court Monday, September 23.)

Military intelligence operatives taking photos and videos of the proceedings and the activists present.

Alexa’s other lawyer, Taule, told Saturday that the criminal charges filed against her proves the soldiers were lying.  “They can’t win over Alexa despite detention of seven days in their camp so their game now is to file charges,” she said. The military for its part said they still consider Alexa as a surrenderee, admitting, however, that things have changed since they made public Alexa’s so-called surrender document. Lt. Col. Dennis Cana, public information officer of the Philippine Army’s Southern Luzon Command, told that Pacalda’s video message refuting the military’s claim “will have a very strong effect on her surrender status” as her sincerity to lay down her arms “is put into question.”

After the inquest proceeding, Alexa was quickly brought outside to a parked black pick-up truck with darkened windows. The Pacaldas were allowed the quickest of goodbyes. By then, more fellow human rights defenders from all over the province had gathered at the gate and managed to chant, “Alexa Pacalda, palayain!” as the soldiers’ convoy sped off back to their camp in Calauag.

Alexa’s family and colleagues shouted “Alexa Pacalda, palayain!” as the military convoy taking her back to Calauag, Quezon sped by.

Conti said she was glad to have assisted Alexa during the inquest. “She really did not surrender as the military claimed,” she said. She also pointed out that if indeed Alexa was in possession of a firearm and blasting caps, it was not the 201st IBPA’s role to arrest her. It was the PNP’s. Alexa’s case is obviously a case of unlawful arrest or abduction, she said. # (Report and photos by Raymund B. Villanueva)

Karapatan lauds UNHRC resolution on the human rights crisis in the Philippines

Karapatan said it is pleased about the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution tabled by Iceland asking member-states to take concrete steps on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines during the council’s 41st session.

“Karapatan welcomes the UNHRC’s decision to pass this long overdue resolution. This comes at a most pressing and opportune time as the Duterte government is set to report on its “achievements” after 3 years in office. This is a significant step towards accountability and we applaud the UNHRC’s decision to not remain complicit amid the rights violations being perpetrated in the Philippines. This is not the end-all, be-all of our efforts to exact accountability, but we take it as a critical start. This is a decision on the side of justice,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said soon after learning of the resolution’s passage.

The Iceland resolution expressed concern on reported cases of extrajudicial killings in line with the drug war, but also raised the issue of reported violations targeting critics and human rights defenders.

According to Karapatan, the resolution urges the Philippine government to take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable in accordance with international norms and standards including on due process and the rule of law; and to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner and the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, including by facilitating country visits and preventing and refraining from all acts of intimidation or retaliation.

“This is a significant and relevant move by Iceland, which was supported by 28 states. An independent investigation into reported human rights violations in line with the government’s anti-narcotics campaign and its counterinsurgency program is long overdue,” Karapatan said in a statement.

“This resolution will initiate the start of a close monitoring on the rights situation in the country. Other efforts domestically, regionally and internationally will likewise move forward, the aggregate of which will expectedly bring out the changes in policy and in leadership that prioritizes human and people’s rights,” the group explained.

Palabay said the UNHRC resolution is not an issue of sovereignty but of accountability.

The Philippines is signatory to binding human rights treaties that allow for such mechanisms of investigation and accountability.

“Duty-bearers who act contrary to their mandate of upholding human rights should expect to be made accountable. In the end, it comes down to exacting justice,” Palabay said.

“This is not a numbers game, as what this callous government tries to reason out. This systematic and state-perpetrated butchering of the Filipino people has reached international concern, and the clamor for change will only echo louder from here on,” she added.

“Despite the government’s efforts to discredit and malign victims, their relatives, and human rights organizations, many countries have already expressed alarm on our situation. We will continuously challenge the government to own up to its flagship policies, and face the consequences of peddling militarism at the expense of people’s rights,” Palabay concluded. (Video by Joseph Cuevas/Report by Raymund B. Villanueva)