Lawyers hail conviction of 4 tokhang police in 2016 homicide

Human rights lawyers welcomed as “a soothing balm” the conviction of several police officers in the killings of father and son Luis and Gabriel Lois Bonifacio under former President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called anti-drug war.

But the National Capital Region chapter of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL-NCR), private prosecutors to the case, immediately clarified that the guilty verdict was not the product of government’s efforts towards justice but the courage of the victim’s families and organizations.

The Caloocan City Regional Trial Court Branch 121 on Tuesday, June 18, convicted Master Sgt. Virgilio Cervantes and Police Corporals Arnel De Guzman, Johnston Alacre and Argemio Saguros, Jr. guilty of homicide for the twin deaths in 2016.

 “The firing of shots made by all the accused which caused the death of the victims without justifiable cause shows same criminal intent towards the same criminal design,” the 30-page ruling reads. 

The convicts were given prison sentences ranging from a minimum of six years to 10 years, with the possibility of parole after the sixth year.

Justice secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla was quick to hail the verdict, claiming the Philippine criminal justice system works.

NUPL-NCR however said the development only showed that the “bloody hands of authorities” are really behind the massive killings under the Duterte regime’s Oplan Tokhang.

The victims, like the Bonifacios, are “almost purely from the ranks of the destitute,” the NUPL-NCR said.

The group added that police officers convicted, such as in the separate cases of Kian de los Santos as well as Carl Arnaiz and Reynaldo de Guzman, cover only low-ranking police personnel out of many others who were part of the operations.

NUPL-NCR also cited immense difficulties in building a case against authorities due to “police incompetence, inaction, indolence and overall culture of impunity.”

Mary Ann Bonifacio, widow and mother of the victims, being comforted by members of the Rise Up for Life and for Rights after the promulgation last Tuesday. (RESBAK photo)

“Luis and Gabriel Lois were but two of 6252 killed in police operations. The number of those brought to court for killings barely reach a hundred,” NUPL-NCR said in the statement.

The group said there are thousands more who cannot identify whose hands pulled the triggers in the vigilante-style killings.

“And yet, while we already know who made the blueprint for widespread and systemic murders…[t]hey are the ones who remain beyond the reach of [local] investigation or prosecution,” the group added.

NUPL members are among the human rights lawyers who assist families of victims who filed complaints against Duterte and others at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, The Netherlands and in many local courts.

Former senator Antonio Trillanes III has repeatedly said a warrant of arrest by the ICC is forthcoming against Duterte and others, such as the former president’s first police chief, now senator, Ronald de la Rosa.

“[This] triumph is a comfort to the family of Luis and Gabriel Lois and a sigh of relief for us, the private prosecutors, our clients in Rise Up for Life and for Rights, and others who supported this quest for justice,” NUPL-NCR said of the guilty verdict.

“However, in terms of scale, [Tuesday’s] legal victory is just a footnote in a bloody chapter that has yet to end as bodies continue to pile up until today,” the group added.

NUPL-NCR urged the prosecution of all responsible for the drug-related killings it said persists even under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. government. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Rise Up founder receives global peace award

A Filipina deaconess has won the 2024 Peace Award given by the World Methodist Council (WMC) for her courageous work on human rights and justice in the Philippines.

United Methodist Church (UMC) deaconess Norma Dollaga, Kapatirang Simbahan Para sa Bayan (Church Brother/Sisterhood for the People) secretary general, has been honored for her decades of heroic peace work in her conflict-ridden homeland, also becoming an outspoken advocate for the victims of drug-related killings.

“She and other courageous faith leaders refused to be intimidated by then President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials who villainized church leaders and others who spoke for the poor,” the WMC said in its announcement.

The global church council added that Dollaga organized prayer vigils and memorial services for those killed by assassins regarded as working in accordance with Duterte’s order to summarily kill suspected drug dependents and personalities.

“As can be seen in her founding of Rise Up for Life and Rights, Dollaga has developed a knack for empowering others to join the struggle for justice and peace,” the WMC added.

Founded in 1976, the WMC Peace Award honors courage, creativity and consistency and given to recipients who live and work in areas where the concern for peace is of great consequence.

Dollaga is the second Filipina to earn the award, after Joy Balazo who was honored in 2012.

Former recipients of the WMC Peace Award include Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela, US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and other global as well as community leaders.

World Methodist Council 2024 Peace Award recipient deaconess Norma Dolla (center) in a rally in Manila. (From Dollaga’s FB account)

WHO IS DEACONESS NORMA DOLLAGA? READ: War against the poor in the Philippines

‘Nervous recipient’

In a message to well-wishers, Dollaga said she is nervous about the award as it means deeper responsibilities for her.

“On behalf of the people’s struggle and hope, and the name of many martyrs who offered their lives in loving God and neighbor, activists who risked their lives in carrying on the struggle for justice and peace, I accept the recognition,” she nonetheless said.

Dollaga also said she accepts the award in honor of those “who unlearned the ways of giving up and carry on with the Mission so that the world will become a home for everyone.”

Dollaga added she also shares the award with her officemates, fellow deaconess and Rise Up coordinator Rubilyn Litao, Leah Valencia, and missionary Becca Lawson.

“Whenever we sent out feet in communities of farmers and indigenous peoples, in prisons where human rights defenders are incarcerated, in urban poor communities, picket lines, homes of the orphans and widows whose loved ones were killed by the war on drugs and others martyred as they fight for justice, we experience the Great Communion,” the awardee added.

United Methodist Church deaconess Norma Dollaga, World Methodist Council 2024 Peace Award recipient. (Photo from Dollaga’sFacebook account.)

A deaconess since her graduation from Harris Memorial College in 1985, Dollaga was appointed by the Philippines Central Conference of the UMC in 2000 to head Kasimbayan, also known as the Ecumenical Center for Development.

As the organization’s general secretary, she has helped shepherd ecumenical groups and networks focusing on human rights and peace such as Rise Up, humanitarian assistanace program Dambana, and alliance of Catholic and Protestant church leaders advocating for human rights and good governance called One Voice.

Dollaga  is also a member of the UMC Commission On Deaconess Service.

“In her decades of church service, Dollaga has become an inspiring model for younger deaconesses interested in deepening their Wesleyan witness to personal and social holiness within the Philippines. She frequently teaches classes and leads seminars as a member of the faculty at Harris Memorial College,” the WMC citation reads. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Trillanes: ICC receives Duterte video admitting to mass murder

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has acknowledged receipt of a video showing former President Rodrigo Duterte admitting funding a death squad, former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV announced.

“Na-acknowledge na po ng ICC ang pagtanggap ng video. Pakiramdam ko malapit nang makamit ang hustisya,” Trillanes said on his social media accounts Tuesday, October 17. (The ICC has acknowledged receiving the video. I feel justice is near.)

Trillanes said his group Magdalo has submitted to the ICC a video showing Duterte publicly admitting that he used confidential and intelligence funds to conduct extra-judicial killings (EJKs) on his constituents in Davao City when he was still a mayor.

In a 18-second clip of an interview Duterte gave to controversial cult leader Apollo Quiboloy over the SMNI channel last week, Duterte said, “Ang intelligence fund, binili ko, pinapatay ko lahat. Kaya ganoon ang Davao. Iyong mga kasama ninyo, pinatigok ko talaga. Iyon ang totoo.” (The intelligence fund, I bought (used) it, I had them all killed. That is why Davao is like that. Your colleagues, I really had them murdered. That is the truth.)

With his latest admission, Trillanes said the charges against Duterte “…is truly an open-and-shut case.”

In the video, Duterte was referring to his so-called Davao Death Squad when he was city mayor in 1988 to 1998, 2001 to 2010, and from 2013 to 2016.

Duterte ordered a similar nationwide killing spree through the Philippine National Police when he became president in 2016 that reportedly resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

Various mass murder and crimes against humanity complaints by Trillanes’ Magdalo, the group of families of victims of Duterte’s drug war Rise Up for Life and For Rights and lawyer Jude Sabio have been filed before the ICC since 2017.

The ICC said its investigation cover EJKs committed by Duterte and his cohorts from November 2011 to March 16, 2019, a day before the Philippine government withdrew from ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute.

The ICC has rejected various appeals submitted by the Philippine government to discard the complaints and is expected to issue a warrant of arrest against Duterte and fellow respondents such as former police chief and now Senator Ronald dela Rosa. 

Trillanes called on the government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to finally allow ICC investigators into the country, “…in order to make ex-president Rodrigo Duterte accountable for his crimes against humanity.” (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Drug war widow brings husband’s case to UN

A widow of a victim of the government’s so-called war on drugs called for a stronger United Nations (UN) effort in investigating the killings in the Philippines.

Amy Jane Lee, whose husband Michael was among the thousands killed, said the bloody campaign started by the Rodrigo Duterte government is continuing under the current Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration.

“The killings continue. If the ‘war on drugs’ was effective, the proliferation of illegal drugs would no longer be an issue. If the domestic investigation processes were efficient, I wouldn’t be here asking for help again,” Lee said.

A member of Rise Up for Life and for Rights, Lee is in Geneva, Switzerland as the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) publicized its report on human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspects of the world drug problem.

Rise Up is among the groups that submitted complaints to the OHCHR and was cited in the report, particularly about human rights violations “resulting from the militarization of anti-drug operations that disproportionately impact the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society.” 

The UN OHCHR report also stated that: “In most cases, accountability for human rights violations and access to effective remedies for victims and communities remains lacking.”

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is conducting its 54th session attended by a delegation of the Philippine UPR (Universal Periodic Review) Watch from human rights, lawyers, indigenous peoples, church, and environment groups from the Philippines.

The HRC is currently conducting a UN Joint Program in the Philippines that includes dialogues and trainings with government agencies in upholding and protecting human rights.

The program however had been receiving criticisms from local human rights groups for being “insubstantial in bringing about changes in the country’s drug policies, with the killings continuing under the Marcos administration unchecked and un-prosecuted.” 

“The heat is on the Philippines, with UN special rapporteurs noting concern over recent developments in the Philippines, on top of the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigating the extrajudicial killings committed during the Duterte administration’s drug war,” said Atty. Kristina Conti, secretary-general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL)-National Capital Region.

The NUPL represents victims of the “war on drugs” in proceedings before the ICC.

Lee and Philippine UPR Watch called on missions of state members of the ICC to support the investigation being conducted by the Office of the Prosecutor.

Conti emphasized the continuing obligation of the Philippine government to cooperate with the court.

“It is logically inconsistent for the Philippines to cooperate with the UN but not the ICC,” she said. 

Philippine UPR Watch also reiterated its call for the UN through the OHCHR to continue their monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in the Philippines, with the killing of a lawyer in Abra province  and the abduction and arbitrary detention of two environmental activists in Bataan. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

ICC asked to proceed with investigations on Duterte gov’t’s war on drugs

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been asked to proceed with an investigation on the human rights crisis in the Philippines after the conclusion of the preliminary investigation pointing to mass murders under the Rodrigo Duterte regime.

“Following a thorough preliminary examination process, the available information indicates that members of the Philippine National Police, and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians [between 2016 and 2019],” ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.

“My Office has also reviewed information related to allegations of torture and other inhumane acts, and related events as early as 1 November 2011, the beginning of the Court’s jurisdiction in the Philippines, all of which we believe require investigation,” she added.

Bensouda said her preliminary investigation has determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed on the territory of the Philippines between 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the Government of Philippines’ “war on drugs” campaign.

The prosecutor said the situation in the Philippines has been under preliminary examination since February 2018 when her office started analyzing “a large amount of publicly available information and information provided to it under article 15 of the Rome Statute.”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is a treaty that established the permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

Lawyer Jude Sabio filed charges before the ICC on April 2017 accusing Duterte of crimes against humanity in connection with the thousands of deaths of suspected illegal drug dependents.

In 2017, former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV traveled to The Hague, The Netherlands to submit information bolstering Sabio’s charges.

The group Rise Up for Life and for Rights composed of families of the victims of Duterte’s war on drugs also submitted a complaint before the ICC in 2018.

Duterte responded by ordering the Philippines’ withdrawal of its ratification of the Rome Statute and repeatedly insulting Bensouda.

Bensouda however clarified that although the Philippines withdrew from the Rome Statute effective March 17, 2019, the ICC retains jurisdiction over crimes that are alleged to have occurred on the territory of the country during the period when it was still a party to the statute.

“Moreover, these crimes are not subject to any statute of limitation,” she explained.

Karapatan photo

Welcome development

Bensouda’s announcement was welcomed by human rights and activist groups as a “long-awaited step towards justice and accountability.”

“[I]t is yet another damning indictment of the Duterte government’s murderous policies that have killed — and continue to kill — thousands of Filipinos with impunity,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said.

“Karapatan, together with the families of the victims of the drug war and other human rights advocates, welcomes this significant and much-needed development amid the backdrop of the rapidly deteriorating human rights crisis in the Philippines,” Palabay added.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said that one of Duterte’s grossest crimes is its so-called war on illegal drugs.

“In spite of the thousands upon thousands killed, the illegal drugs scourge has gone unabated, proving it is ineffective,” Reyes said.

The ICC prosecutor’s findings is another clear basis why darkness should never be allowed to reign over our country. The regime of state-sponsored killings must be stopped,” he added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Hopes for justice of drug war victims’ mothers buoyed after passing letters to Pope

By Visayas Today

Two Filipinas who lost young sons to the bloody war on drugs being waged by President Rodrigo Duterte believe their hopes for justice received a major boost after letters they wrote seeking the help of Pope Francis were received by the pontiff’s aides in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, October 9.

Marissa Lazaro, who lost her 20-year old son Chris in 2017, and Katherine Bautista, who found her 21-year old stepson John Jezreel in a Manila morgue days after he went missing in January 2017, were in Rome as part of the post-performance talk of the play “Tao Po” (Is Anybody There?), a four-part monologue by cultural activist Mae Paner, who portrays characters from the murderous campaign that human rights groups say may have claimed upwards of 30,000 lives since mid-2016, when Rodrigo Duterte became president.

The play is making the rounds of six European cities, including Rome, which hosts thousands of migrant Filipino workers and where supporters of Duterte have mounted a campaign to boycott the performance.

The two mothers are involved with Rise Up for Life and Rights, a faith-based support group for families of victims of extrajudicial killings that has filed a complaint against Duterte before the International Criminal Court.

This week, Rise Up, supported by the National Union of People’s Lawyers filed a petition asking the ICC to admit more evidence against Duterte.

In response to the ICC’s opening of a preliminary examination into the allegations, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the Court, which maintains it retains jurisdiction over complaints filed while the country was still a member.

Marissa Lazaro’s handwritten note to Pope Francis. (Photo courtesy of Rise Up for Life and for Rights.)

Bautista and Lazaro had to maneuver through the crush of thousands of people who filled St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s general audience.

In a message to reporters on social media, Lazaro said: “Nag-abot ang paningin namin ni Pope. Saya-saya ko kasi nung abutin nung mama yung sulat, ko pakiramdam ko nakarating sa kanya ang mensahe para sa hustisya sa anak ko.”

(The Pope and I locked gazes. I was so happy when an aide accepted my letter, I felt certain my message asking justice for my son had reached him.)

Bautista, on the other hand, said she wept: “Naiyak ako. Iba pakiramdam ng saya na sa Roma ko pa nakita ang Papa. Paulit-ulit akong nagsabi ng, ‘Please get this’! Kaya nung kinuha ang sulat ko nakaramdam ako ng pag-asa hindi lang para sa stepson kundi para sa lahat ng biktima ng walang habas na pagpaslang sa Pilipinas.”

(I cried. It’s a different joy you feel seeing the Pope in Rome. I repeatedly said, ‘Please get this!’ Which is why when my letter was received I felt hope not only for my stepson but for all the victims of the indiscriminate killings in the Philippines.)

Pope Francis waves to well-wishers at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (Photo courtesy of Rise Up for Life and for Rights.)

Even before the Tao Po team arrived, Duterte supporters have been hounding Philippine human rights advocates who have brought the campaign against the war on drugs to Europe, including the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In Iceland, which Duterte vilified for spearheading a resolution seeking an investigation into the war on drugs and its massive death toll, Lazaro was hounded by supporters of the president who interrupted her account at a forum of her son’s death and accused her of “dramatizing” her story. #