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Political prisoners draw support from online campaign

By Joseph Cuevas

PROGRESSIVE GROUPS and individuals joined an online campaign Monday night, March 31, demanding the freedom of all political prisoners amidst the threat of the corona virus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

Photo from Karapatan

According to human rights group Karapatan that initiated the campaign, #FreePoliticalPrisonersPh and #SetThemFree became trending for two hours and ranked numbers 29 and 30 respectively in the country.

The online campaign followed the appeal of relatives of political prisoners and the call of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet for governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention since, in many countries, “detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so.”

“People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible,” Bachelet said.

Photo from COURAGE

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology reported a 450% jail congestion rate nationwide last October with 380 out of 467 detention facilities in the country filled beyond capacity while a 310% congestion rate were recorded by the Bureau of Corrections this January, Karapatan said.

Karapatan emphasized that the inhumane conditions in prisons imperil the life and health of detainees, particularly the sick, the elderly, as well as pregnant women and nursing mothers.

They also added that the “State policy on public health measures must be implemented, not militarist and punitive measures like mass arrests that only criminalize and punish the poor and the marginalized while failing to address their legitimate needs and demands.”

As of March 28, there are 609 political prisoners in the country, 100 of whom are women.

Photo from Mrs. Gloria Almonte, wife of Dionisio Almonte

The group added that 47 political prisoners in its list are elderly while 63 suffer from serious ailments.

Earlier, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza made similar appeals for the release of political prisoners, as well as other sick and elderly prisoners, including those about to be paroled or pardoned, to decongest the country’s jails and prevent a further outbreak of the virus. #

BAYAN demands freedom of all political prisoners

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) joined UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s call for the freedom of all political prisoners in the time of the corona virus disease (Covid-19) pandemic to save them from possibly contracting the virus in the often crowded and inhumane conditions of jails worldwide, especially in the Philippines. The action was also in response to the online campaign of human rights group Karapatan this 7-8 pm ofTuesday, March 31.

Amid the intensifying dangers presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, Karapatan and other human rights groups as well as religious leaders called on the Rodrigo Duterte the government to free the more than 500 political prisoners in the Philippines. They also called for the release of other prisoners, especially the elderly, pregnant, women and nursing mothers and those who are due for parole or pardon. # (Jek Alcaraz)

Groups urge Covid-19 testing in prisons, release of political detainees

Families of political detainees urged the government to follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and start mass testing in prisons after receiving reports that some prisoners are showing symptoms of the corona virus disease (Covid-19).

The group KAPATID said that mass testing should start immediately as it has received reports that more inmates are getting sick despite denials by prison agencies and the Department of Interior and Local Government of confirmed cases.

Marami nagkakasakit, inuubo at nilalagnat,” KAPATID said, citing a report from relatives of political prisoners at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the national penitentiary at Muntinlupa City. (Many are getting sick, coughing and getting fevers.)

The group said three political prisoners are now reportedly ill with fever at the political prisoners’ wing at the Metro Manila District Jail-Annex 4 (MMDJ-4) at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City.

KAPATID said the three unnamed political detainees are showing common Covid-19 symptoms like fever, headaches, cold, cough and body weakness—the same symptoms for the respiratory disease which has already killed 45 people in the country as of March 25, including nine doctors.

“KAPATID cannot emphasize enough why mass testing is imperative and why it must include the whole prison population comprising both inmates and prison personnel. Reports by other countries such as China and the US indicate that prison guards brought the sickness into prison facilities even with lockdowns in place and stricter health measures, including a forehead thermal scan of persons entering jail premises,” KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim said in a statement

Lim cited scientific researches that early action through widespread testing has proven effective in controlling the rapid spread of the disease in South Korea and Germany which have managed to keep the Covid-19 death rate relatively low through extensive testing.

“Mass testing of both symptomatic individuals and all those who came into contact with them was crucial in catching the disease, isolating the carriers before they could pass it on, and providing more accurate figures of how many are really affected and how and where to limit contamination,” Lim said.

Free political detainees

Earlier, KAPATID called for the release of political detainees in line with reports that backchannel meetings between Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) representatives and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in The Netherlands have been discussing the matter.

The NDFP urged the GRP to release all political prisoners and a general amnesty be issued “as a matter of justice and necessity.”

The NDFP made the appeal when the Communist Party of the Philippines declared a unilateral ceasefire last Tuesday, March 24, in response to the United Nations appeal for all warring parties to temporarily lay down arms to concentrate on responding to the pandemic.

Kapatid cited the move made by Iran and Egypt to release tens of thousands of prisoners, including political detainees, in a bid to decongest their prisons and prevent Covid-19’s spread through overpopulated jail facilities.

“KAPATID continues to press the humanitarian release of prisoners in line with the new UN (United Nations) call as the most expedient solution to protect and save lives. Tao rin sila,” Lim said. (They are also humans.)

The National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP), the largest group of mainline Protestant churches in the country, also urged the government to release all political detainees following the appeal by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on March 26.

“Let’s take it from the UN. There is an urgent need to address the catastrophic risks in prisons by releasing prisoners, especially now that the country is confronting numerous challenges due to this pandemic,” Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, NCCP General Secretary, said.

“As the number of positive COVID-19 cases spike up, the most Christian thing to do is to leave no one behind. Don’t forget those in prison, especially human rights defenders facing trumped charges, who have staunchly worked for social justice and human rights. They need compassion, they need justice and they need protection. They should be released under humanitarian grounds,” Marigza said in a statement.

“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible,” Bachelet said in her appeal for political detainees’ release.

Karapatan poster.

Meanwhile, human rights group Karapatan announced it will lead an online campaign on Facebook and Twitter  to urge the freedom of prisoners with light sentences as well as political detainees on March 31, Tuesday, at seven to eight o’clock in the evening.

Citing the congestion of Philippine jails at 450%, Karapatan said the government must free the elderly, sick, pregnant and nursing women, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner-couples, and “accidental victims” of political arrests. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Rights defenders tell UN of many rights violations in PH

GENEVA, Switzerland—A team of Filipino rights defenders here are preparing for another busy week calling for investigations by the United Nations (UN) on the state of human rights in the Philippines.

With three oral interventions one after the other last Friday, March 6, and another last Monday, March 2, the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) strongly urged the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to pass another resolution in June to look into various reports of many rights violations by the Rodrigo Duterte government.

But contrary to the confrontational stance employed by the government Mission in the ongoing 43rd UNHRC session here, the four speakers from EcuVoice unanimously supported the reports presented by UN special rapporteurs.

EcuVoice delegation co-leader and Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said last Friday that she welcomes the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders that noted “wide-ranging and cumulative violation of the rights of defenders.”

“This rings true in my particular case and that of human rights defenders of Karapatan. Twelve of my colleagues were killed by suspected State forces under the current administration, three have been arrested the past four months, and many more are facing trumped up charges. Women defenders face misogynist attacks, driven by discriminatory pronouncements of government officials,” Palabay said.

Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay addressing UNHRC’s 43rd Regular Session.

Johanna dela Cruz of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines said they are also grateful for the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and support his conclusions and recommendations.

Dela Cruz said church people’s rights in the Philippines are violated, primarily those “doing their Christian mandate and mission of ministering to the poor and the marginalized. Bishops and Parish priests, particularly from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), were red-tagged, harassed by soldiers implicating them as rebels.”

National Council of Churches in the Philippines’s Johanna dela Cruz addressing UNHRC’s 43rd Regular Session.

EcuVoice head and International Association of Democratic Lawyers interim president Edre Olalia for his part reported to the UNHRC that in the 44 months of the Duterte administration, at least 48 lawyers including judges and prosecutors have been murdered.

“Human rights lawyers like Ben Ramos as well as lawyers handling drug-related cases continue to be brazenly attacked in various forms. Orchestrated smear campaigns and vilification by red-tagging, labelling and reprisal charges against human rights defenders at every opportunity continue with impunity,” Olalia said.

The three defender’s reports Friday brings to four the successful oral interventions presented by EcuVoice before the UNHRC.

Last Monday, Clemente Bautista of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment reported that there are serious challenges to life, security and liberty of environmental defenders in the Philippines, “which redound to transgressions on the rights to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environmental of communities, including that of indigenous peoples and peasants.”

Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment’s Clemente Bautista addressing UNHRC’s 43rd Regular Session.

“It must be noted that the EcuVoice delegation have welcomed all the UN special rapporteurs’ reports presented thus far, quite different from the bellicose stance of the Philippine government in the ongoing debates,” Olalia said.

This week, the UNHRC is scheduled to hear reports and oral interventions on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights as well as reports on minorities despite a growing scare of the spread of the corona virus disease (COVID) in this country brought about by 24 confirmed cases.

COVID has also spread in neighboring France and Italy, prompting overseas and migrant Filipino workers to express travel and work concerns that are likely to be affected by stringent measures imposed on border crossings.

All side events at the UN in this city have been cancelled that has severely affected restaurant and café businesses of Filipino expatriates in this city. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

EcuVoice: PH government exporting red-tagging in Geneva

GENEVA, Switzerland—A group of rights defenders called on the Philippine Mission to the ongoing 43rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council here to just answer questions about the human rights situation in the Philippines instead of engaging in red-baiting.

“The Philippine Government must focus on explaining to the international community why rights defenders are being killed and arrested, members of the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) delegation said.

Reacting to the government Mission’s statement Wednesday, March 5, at the Palais des Nations, EcuVoice said the government must also stop recklessly accusing killed and threatened human rights defenders as supporters of communists.

“How are vilifying human rights defenders as terrorists a justification to the fact that many of us are under threat of unjust arrests and are being killed by the security forces of the Duterte government?” EcuVoice delegation co-head and Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

The group said that while paying lip service to UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst’s report on the invaluable contribution of human rights defenders, the government accused rights activists in the Philippines of “[using] the cover of human rights defenders to protect, cover, or promote agendas of deceit and violence.”

The government further accused Filipino “communists” of benefitting from and exploiting the goodwill that the United Nations system endows human rights defenders.

 “Mr. Forst, you have mentioned the need to address impunity and provide effective remedy, what would you advice in such situation where unscrupulous groups are using the defender badge as an impunity blanket to evade accountability from gross human rights violations?” the government self-righteously taunted.

“This red-tagging spree being exported by the government in the august halls of the UN Human Rights Council is ad nauseam and reflects not only the paucity of its arguments but the bankruptcy of its moral ground in the community of nations.

“Enough already. Just answer the questions please, “EcuVoice team leader Atty. Edre Olalia said.

The EcuVoice delegation is in this city to follow up on at least written submissions related to the Iceland-led resolution in July 2019 calling for an investigation on human rights violations under the Rodrigo Duterte government.

Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment international networks coordinator Clemente Bautista successfully presented an oral intervention on the killings of environmental defenders last Monday, March 2.

Other delegation members include a human rights worker facing arrest when she returns home, a congresswoman whose partylist is villified, a widow of a slain human rights lawyera bishop who is facing death threats, a mother whose two sons were murdered in the “drug war,” a lawyer who is labelled and his group viciously smeared a journalist whose peers are being pressured, and this reporter whose colleagues are facing various threats. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Rights defenders vow to fight Duterte

Human rights defenders, led by the Karapatan, vowed to fight Rodrigo Duterte’s fascism as they commemorated International Human Rights Day last December 10 in Manila.

Condemning various cases of human rights violations under Duterte’s three-year old rule, the activists held a program at Liwasang Bonifacio and later marched to Mendiola to burn an effigy of the president. (Video by Jek Alcaraz/Kodao)

Activists vow to defeat Duterte’s fascism on human rights day 2019

Led by KARAPATAN, human rights defenders and peace advocates in the Philippines marked International Human Rights Day 2019 with a protest rally at the Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila condemning extra judicial killings and other rights violations.

They marched to Mendiola fronting Malacanang Palace and burned a huge effigy of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte as they called to end tyranny and struggle for a just and lasting peace. (ILPS-Philippines video)

Rights group links former officer’s disappearance to military

Karapatan Southern Mindanao Region (SMR) said the disappearance of its former secretary general is linked to the intensifying crackdown on activists and the victim’s past experiences of harassment and red-tagging by the military.

In calling for the “surfacing” of human rights defender Honey Mae Suazo who has been missing since November 2, Karapatan SMR raised the possibility of the military’s involvement in what they suspect is a case of abduction.

“Honey May has been with Karapatan for five years. In that period, she was subjected to multiple threats and malicious accusations peddled by the military,” the group’s current secretary general Jay Apiag said in a statement.

“Although, she had left Karapatan, it seems that she still remains a target. If her past experiences of continuous harassment are indicative of anything, it is that Honey May is still facing reprisal for her work as a human rights defender,” he added.

Suazo was Karapatan SMR secretary general from 2011 to 2016. The group said she was subjected to numerous threats, the most recent of which came from Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil Military Operations Antonio Parlade.

Karapatan SMR said Brigadier General Parlade accused Suazo of being associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army (NPA) after she assisted the family of NPA leader Zaldy Cañete to visit the latter who was hospitalized after suffering near-fatal injuries after an encounter in Bukidnon Province.

“As a matter of fact, Honey May Suazo’s photograph and name was viciously appended in the posters hanged in the cities of Butuan and Surigao, April this year, accusing her as a terrorist.” Apiag emphasized.

Apiag said Suazo was merely performing a mandate of a human rights advocacy institution to assist wounded combatants who are accorded protection and right to visitation of families as mandated under the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) of which the Philippine government is a signatory.

“Regardless of what the military is trying to insinuate, assisting families of combatants, including hors de combat, is not illegal or condemnable. They can double check with the IHL provisions or go to the database and briefers provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross if they need a refresher,” Apiag said.

Apiag said that Suazo’s disappearance is with the backdrop of an intensifying crackdown against activists and legitimate people’s organizations.

“With martial law in Mindanao, the repressive machinations led by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, and implementation of counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapanatagan, attacks against activists like Honey May have become more commonplace, justified by false allegations and smear campaigns,” he said.

Initial investigations

Karapatan SMR said it formed and dispatched an investigation team composed of paralegal after hearing of Suazo’s disappearance and submitted the following

– On the morning of November 2, All Soul’s Day, Suazo visited her relatives’ graves with her partner, Anelo Pabuaya;
– Following their visit to the cemetery in Panabo, Suazo and her partner were at a friend’s house in Barangay New Site Gredu. At around 3 in the afternoon, Suazo decided to go ahead of her partner to return to Davao City;
– A few minutes later, Suazo called her partner saying she realized she had no enough money for the bus ride and asked Pabuaya to fetch her at Panabo City Hall;
– After a while, Suazo called Pabuaya again, saying she was being tailed by a white pick-up truck. She asked Pabuaya to immediately come and fetch her. Pabuaya advised her to go to the nearest police station. When Pabuaya went to the station, he did not find Suazo. He tried to contact her mobile phone numbers but all were out of reach.

“Given her background and the widespread targeting of activists, we hold the AFP accountable on Honey May’s disappearance. We demand for the immediate surfacing of Honey May Suazo and to end all attacks of human rights defenders.,” Apiag said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Karapatan warns of more raids of activists’ offices

By Len Olea/Bulatlat

MANILA — Human rights alliance Karapatan warned of more raids and arrests of activists in the coming hours or days.

In a Facebook post, Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said that at least ten search warrants were issued by Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89 Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert on October 30. Four of these warrants have been served so far.

Tondo, Manila – Search Warrant No. 5944
Paco, Manila – Search Warrant No. 5947
Escalante City, Negros Occidental – Search Warrant No. 5949
Bacolod City – Search Warrant No. 5953

“If all the search warrants issued by Judge Burgos-Villavert from No. 5944 to No. 5953 are offices and homes of members of people’s and human rights organizations, then we are looking at more raids in the coming hours or days,” Palabay noted.

Earlier today, policemen raided the office of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Manila in Tondo, Manila. Three activists were arrested and brought to the Manila Police District.

In a report, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) Acting Director Brig. Gen. Debold Sinas said the Philippine National Police has been monitoring leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in Metro Manila. Sinas even units from the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters are monitoring these personalities in coordination with the military’s Joint Task Force-NCR.

Copy-paste warrants

Villavert has been criticized for issuing what Karapatan called as “copy-paste” search warrants that have led to the arrest of 57 activists in Negros island and five activists in Metro Manila.

Karapatan noted that Villavert was also the judge who issued warrants for the arrest of National Democratic Front peace consultants Vicente Ladlad, Rey Casambre, Estrelita Suaybaguio, Alexander and Winona Birondo, and Villamor couple.

In a statement, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) also questioned Villavert’s actions.

Section 12 authorizes Executive Judges of Regional Trial Courts of Manila and Quezon City – as an exception to the general rule that it must be the court within whose territorial jurisdiction a crime was committed – to act upon applications filed by the police for search warrants involving, among others, illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions.

The same circular requires that such applications shall be personally endorsed by the heads of such agencies. The Executive Judges are also required to keep a special docket book listing the details of the applications and the results of the searches and seizures made pursuant to the warrants issued.

In this light, NUPL raised the following questions:

– Who, in the PNP, if any, endorsed the application for search warrant?

– Did the OIC PNP Chief personally endorse the application for search warrant?

– What was the basis, if any, of the application for search warrant to establish probable cause, considering serious and consistent assertions that the firearms and explosives were casually planted during the search?

– What was the basis of the honorable judge to grant the application and issue the search warrant?

– Did the honorable judge hear any witness, ask and document searching questions to personally determine the existence of probable cause as mandated by the Constitution and the Rules of Criminal Procedure?

– What was the reason behind and what really transpired during the meeting between the honorable judge and the police chief the day before the issuance of the warrant?

– Will the honorable judge make available at the proper forum and time the “special docket book,” which contains the details of the application for purposes of transparency and scrutiny?

– Why was there a need to apply for a search warrant in a faraway court when the same can be procured in a closer regional court without compromising secrecy and service of the warrant?

– Why is there seemingly a pattern to issue search warrants against political dissenters and critical groups from one and the exactly the same judge even if legally allowable?

“As the perceived bastion of fairness and justice, the Judiciary must relentlessly maintain its independence against actual or perceived interference and pressure exerted by other government branches. The bench and its members must not let themselves be used, or appear to be used, wittingly or unwittingly, as tools or minions of political persecution,” the NUPL said.

Progressive groups have called on the public to resist Duterte’s crackdown against critics. #

21 sacked Ceres workers among Bacolod raid detainees – Bayan

By Visayas Today

Twenty-one laid off workers of the Ceres Bus line who were consulting a labor leader were among the 55 persons (not 62 as earlier reported by authorities) arrested and detained in simultaneous raids last week on four locations in Bacolod City that state forces claimed harbored communist rebels in training.

This was bared by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, which held a press conference in Metro Manila on Sunday, November 3, to denounce what it called the “tanim baril, tanim ebidensya” (planting of guns and evidence) tactics alleged used by the Army and police to justify the raids and boost their claims that those arrested are members of the rebel movement.

Also nabbed and detained were 25 youth, among them 13 minors, of the grassroots cultural group Teatro Obrero who were rehearsing for a presentation of their play “Papa Isio,” on the legendary Negros hero of the revolution against Spain and the war against America.

The youth and Ceres workers were among those arrested at a compound in a residential area of Barangay Bata that serves as the office of leftist party-list Bayan Muna and other organizations. The Army and police claim the place, where 30 firearms and explosives were supposedly recovered, served as a “training area” for rebel recruits, including potential “child warriors.”

Also netted in the raids were several officers of progressive groups like the National Federation of Sugar Workers, Kilusang Mayo Uno and Karapatan, all of which the government and state forces openly tag as “legal fronts” of the rebels, and Anne Krueger of the alternative media outfit Paghimutad, all of whom were accused of being part of the rebels’ regional leadership in Negros.

Aside from those arrested in the October 31 Bacolod raids, two succeeding raids in Escalante City on November 1 also led to the apprehension of NFSW staff Imelda Sultan and Ma. Lindy Perucho. As with the Bacolod operations, the Escalante raiders also claimed to have recovered weapons and explosives from the two women.

Also on October 31, Cora Agovida, the Metro Manila chairperson of Gabriela, and her husband Michael Tan Bartolome of the urban poor group Kadamay, were arrested and weapons and explosive also supposedly seized.

Incidentally, all the search warrants used as the basis for the raids were issued on October 30 by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89.

Bayan, in a statement, said the raids signified “how low the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines have sunk in their effort to comply with Duterte’s orders to crack down on activists and political dissenters.”

It also noted the similarities in the operations:

1. Police gets a search warrant from a friendly, uninformed or intimidated judge, in this case from Quezon City which is outside the area of jurisdiction where the operation is made;
2. Occupants of the raided office or home are forced to go outside while police operatives, some in plain clothes, come in to search the area;
3. Occupants are then allowed back in only to discover illegal guns and explosives that police allege were found in their possession;
4. All persons are then arrested, detained and interrogated for prolonged periods while being denied their right to their lawyer or to be visited by relatives and friends. In the worst case like the Kanlaon, Manjuyod and Sta. Catalina incidents last March 30, 14 farmers were killed by police serving such search warrants;
5. To justify and muddle their illegal conduct, police and military officials go the rounds of the media vilifying the victims and claiming that these are members or supporters of the New People’s Army.

Bayan called the raids “a portent of worse things to come” and predicted “an escalation of the Duterte regime’s fascist crackdown on groups and individuals critical of the government, whose crime is to merely exercise their constitutional right to organize, express and seek redress for their grievances.” #