Killings, violations vs human rights defenders to intensify with martial law extension, counter-insurgency crackdown – Karapatan

“With the extension of martial law in Mindanao, the continuing implementation of counter-insurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan, the crackdown on progressive and human rights organizations advocating for people’s rights, and attacks against press freedom, the Duterte regime is keen on intensifying extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, threats and harassment against human rights defenders (HRDs) in a brazen and detestable attempt to muzzle legitimate opposition to its anti-people policies,” said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, in a consultation led by international rights group International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Quezon City, Philippines. 
According to Palabay, Karapatan recorded 84 human rights defenders killed under the Duterte administration, out of the 697 HRDs killed since 2001. “We have documented numerous cases of human rights defenders killed, harassed, and tortured for their work. State security forces are incessant in their attacks, especially against individuals and organizations who are making an impact in encouraging and supporting entire communities in advancing their respective struggles. Tyrants do not like unyielding, resolute people who challenge the status quo and work purposely to demand justice  – an attribute characteristic of HRDs,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay. 

Palabay cited the implementation of counter-insurgency Oplan Kapayapaan, martial law in Mindanao, the anti-terror law, and the use of legal offensives as among the measures utilized by the Duterte regime to criminalize dissent and repress human rights defenders. “These anti-people policies have done their work not only in enabling State security forces to carry out attacks against HRDs without misgivings, but also in justifying said violations. Ultimately, impunity is assured for the perpetrator and injustice for the victims and their kin,” she added. 

The Karapatan secretary general cited the killing of peasant and indigenous advocates in the past two weeks in Mindanao. On January 22, Aniceto Lopez Jr., 55, the secretary-general of Kahugpungan sa mga Mag-uuma (KASAMA) – Bukidnon, was shot dead in Purok 3, Paitan, Quezon, Bukidnon. The perpetrator was identified as Ernesto Balopenios, a member of the Philippine Marines. The victim sustained 7 gunshot wounds. Lopez was a former member of the barangay council and has been active in various campaigns for farmers and farmworkers in the region. Prior to his killing, the victim reportedly received a call from an unknown person who introduced himself as a member of the Bukidnon police. The said caller ordered Lopez to surrender before January 27, as he was accused of being an NPA supporter. 

On January 20, 2018, peasant activist James Flores, 33, a member of the Pederasyon sa tanang Asosasyon sa mga Mag-uuma sa Agusan ug Davao (PAMULAD), was gunned down by an unidentified assailant while leaving a grocery store in Tagum City. Members and leaders of PAMULAD have been consistently red-tagged by the AFP as sympathizers of the NPA.

Palabay also cited the harassment done against Ferdinand Gaite, the national president of the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE) on January 19, 2017. A man who introduced himself as a member of the Department of National Defense (DND) visited Gaite’s residence and interrogated a member of his household and his neighbors for information about him.

“These violations reveal a chilling truth about the security of human rights defenders and activists in the Philippines. This is why a bill aimed at protecting HRDs is long overdue. Instead of tinkering the 1987 Constitution with self-serving and anti-people amendments, legislators should instead work on proposed legislations that uphold and protect people’s rights,” added Palabay, noting that House Bill 1617, the bill by the Makabayan bloc at the House of Representatives, has remained as among the HoR’s least prioritized measures. The said proposed bill includes pertinent provisions including access to documents of government units and personnel, paramilitary units and personnel, military affiliate and assets, and a measure wherein HRDs can file a motion to dismiss fabricated criminal complaints filed to discourage their work.

“State repression is the Duterte regime’s immediate response to any form of legitimate efforts to express discontent and criticism against this government. With the direction that Duterte is steering at, the lives of HRDs will be put more at risk. Because this regime holds human rights in contempt and treats it as a hindrance to its self-serving ends, we need all measures that can help in the defense of human rights and its advocates.  Along with it is our consistent will and efforts to fight alongside the marginalized and oppressed. In this regard, HRDs will remain unyielding. We refuse to be silenced,” concluded Palabay.