Philippines: Activists face judicial harassment, abductions and being designated as terrorists
The state of civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Concerns documented in recent years include the arrest and detention of activists, often on fabricated charges. Human rights defenders have been ‘red-tagged’, putting them at risk of arrest or even being killed. Civil society has also documented the harassment and attacks against journalists.
In July 2023, the International Criminal Court cleared the way for its prosecutor to press on with investigating killings under former President Rodrigo Duterte after a panel voted 3-2 to reject an appeal from the Philippines that sought to block the investigation.
Human rights groups in August 2023 slammed the EU decision to restart trade negotiations with the Philippines despites its failure to ensure accountability for human rights abuses. Karapatan said that “it is lamentable that trade negotiations have restarted given the Philippine government’s poor record of adherence to human rights norms and standards”.
In September 2023, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the continuing human rights violations under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The group said that while the new administration has been less confrontational and more diplomatic, human rights violations have persisted.
HRW noted that President Marcos has not rescinded the executive issuances that provide wide authority to the police to conduct anti-drug raids and operations, and that are effectively the legal basis used by the police to try to justify unlawful killings. At least 397 people have been killed in “drug-related violence” since the first day of the Marcos administration up to 31st August 2023. He has also denounced the International Criminal Court’s investigation into possible crimes against humanity related to “drug war” killings under Duterte. The government continues to target leftist political activists, civil society leaders and perceived critics with threats, judicial harassment and at times violence.
The climate of impunity for past crimes has persisted. On 6th October, the Malolos Regional Trial Court acquitted retired major general Jovito Palparan and five auxiliary forces of the military for the 2006 kidnapping and serious illegal detention with physical injuries of brothers Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo.
In recent months, the authorities have continued to pursue renewed perjury charges against ten activists. Human rights defenders have been designated as terrorists and also accused of terror financing. Activists have also been abducted, while families of victims of enforced disappearances continue to seek justice. A lawyer and labour organiser were killed, while protesters are facing charges for their activism. In nearly all cases there has been impunity and a lack of accountability.
Renewed judicial harassment against human rights defenders
Eight international human rights NGOs — @forum_asia, @amnesty, @apwld, @FrontLineHRD, @fidh_en, @ESCRNet, @ISHRglobal, and @omctorg — along with 34 organizations across the Asia Pacific condemn the renewed judicial harassment against human rights defenders in the Philippines. pic.twitter.com/7VkbM0sIm7— Karapatan (@karapatan) August 23, 2023
Ten human rights defenders who had previously been acquitted for perjury are facing renewed judicial harassment.
In March 2023, a petition was filed by prosecutors from the Quezon City Office of the Prosecutor, with General Esperon and current NSA General Eduardo Ano seeking a review of a lower court’s decision against the ten human rights defenders. They include Karapatan National Council members Elisa Tita Lubi, Cristina Palabay, Roneo Clamor, Gabriela Krista Dalena, Dr. Edita Burgos, Jose Mari Callueng and Fr. Wilfredo Ruazol as well as Joan May Salvador and Gertrudes Libang of GABRIELA and Sr. Elenita Belardo of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP).
The petition also includes the judge who presided over the case, Judge Aimee Marie B. Alcera. They alleged that Judge Alcera committed “grave abuse of discretion” in acquitting the defenders. The petition is now pending before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 84, Presiding Judge Luisito Galvez Cortez.
In August 2023, 41 civil society groups issued a statement condemning the renewed judicial harassment and called for the charges to be dropped immediately. They also called on the government to ensure an enabling environment for all human rights defenders, allowing them to continue their essential work without fear of reprisals.
Human rights defenders designated as terrorists
LOOK. Activists condemn the Anti-Terror Council's reso designating Cordillera human rights defenders as terrorists. pic.twitter.com/wAEkY2OYPm— Bulatlat (@bulatlat) July 11, 2023
On 7th June 2023, the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) signed Resolution No. 41 (2022) designating five indigenous people’s leaders and advocates - Sarah Abellon Alikes, Jennifer R. Awingan, Windel Bolinget, Stephen Tauli, and May Casilao - as terrorist individuals. The resolution also freezes their property and funds, including related accounts.
Four of the indigenous people’s human rights defenders – Alikes, Awingan, Bolinget and Tauli — are leaders of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA). May Casilao has been active in Panalipdan! Mindanao (Defend Mindanao), a Mindanao-wide interfaith network of various sectoral organisations and individuals focused on providing education on, and conducting campaigns against, threats to the environment and people of the island, especially the Lumad.
In July 2023, CIVICUS said: “The arbitrary and baseless designation of these human rights defenders highlights the concerns of human rights organisations against Republic Act No. 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act, particularly on the weaponisation of the draconian law against political dissent and human rights work and advocacy in the Philippines and the dire implications on the rights to due process and against warrantless arrests, among others.”
Anti-terrorism law deployed against activists in the Southern Tagalog region
The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) has been deployed to suppress and persecute human rights defenders in the Southern Tagalog region. As of July 2023, up to 13 human rights defenders from Southern Tagalog face trumped-up criminal complaints citing violations under the ATA. Among those targeted include Rev. Glofie Baluntong, Hailey Pecayo, Kenneth Rementilla and Jasmin Rubio.
Baluntong, who is serving communities in the Mindoro provinces, was slapped in 2022 with attempted murder charges and violation of the terrorism law by the military. The complaints against Pecayo, Rementilla, and Rubia were lodged against them by the military in June 2023 after they conducted fact-finding investigations into incidents of alleged extrajudicial killings in Batangas province. The three activists were part of teams investigating the killing of farmer Maximino Digno and Kyllene Casao in July 2022 which they blamed on the military.
In September 2023, a student leader in Laguna province was implicated by the military as a terrorist. John Peter Angelo “Jpeg” Garcia was accused of being a communist rebel in the affidavit of Sgt. Jean Claude Bajaro of the 59th Infantry Battalion, who filed a case against Pecayo.
Civil society group in the Visayas faces terror financing charges
On 13th August 2023, the Community Empowerment Resource Network (CERNET) received a subpoena from the Department of Justice (DOJ) over a complaint filed by Brig. Gen. Joey Escanillas, commander of the joint Task Group Cebu - Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in May 2023.
The complaint was filed against 27 individuals who are former council members, board members, staff, and a member of a partner organisation for the alleged violation of Republic Act 10168, or the “Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suspension Act of 2012.”
CERNET is a consortium or group of different civil society organisations based in the Visayas, currently composed of 10 members. The non-profit organisation provides small funds to people’s organisations and capacitates them according to their projects.
The group condemned the state’s effort to vilify the cause and mission of the organsation. It said: “we strongly debunk the allegations mentioned in the complaint, especially when it is grounded on lies and baseless accusations”.
Karapatan denounced the filing of the case as yet another clear and unequivocal example of how counter-terror legislation in the Philippines is being used to violate rights and to impede the work of human rights defenders.
The group noted that prior to this case, numerous incidents of red-tagging, threats and surveillance against CERNET’s staff had been reported. In January 2023, CERNET staff April Dyan Gumanao and her fiance were abducted by suspected state agents and went missing for days before they surfaced.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted a preliminary hearing against 25 members of CERNET in September 2023.
Two anti-reclamation activists abducted
Environmental activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano vow to continue their fight against reclamation projects. The two revealed last month that they were abducted by the military, countering the government’s claim that they surrendered to authorities. @PhilstarNews pic.twitter.com/6nzdJG2ReG— Gaea Cabico (@gaeacabico) October 5, 2023
Two university students active in environmentalist protests were abducted by unidentified men in September 2023 and resurfaced nearly two weeks later.
Activists Jhed Tamano, 22, and Jonila Castro, 21, were working with families in Bataan, a province by the bay, when they were taken by four individuals in Barangay Lati in Orion town and driven off in a sports utility vehicle. The two women are enrolled at Bulacan State University. Castro is a community organiser of AKAP Ka Manila Bay, a network of advocates opposing dump-and-fill reclamation activities, while Tamano is a programmem coordinator of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum’s community and church programme for Manila Bay.
Their case marked the latest abduction in the Philippines, where environmental or grassroots activists are targeted for kidnapping or “red-tagged” as communist sympathisers, according to human rights advocates. Rights group Karapatan has documented at least 8 cases of enforced disappearances under the current administration.
On 15th September 2023, the two women surfaced in Bulacan. While the authorities claimed that the two reportedly surrendered to the Philippine Army’s 70th Infantry Battalion in Doña Remedios Trinidad town on 12th September, the women said they were abducted by the military and then forced into signing affidavits of surrender after supposedly leaving the communist movement.
During a press conference on 19th September, Castro said: “The truth is we were abducted by the military. We were forced to surrender because we were threatened. It’s not true that we wanted the military to take custody of us”.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said it has begun its investigation into the alleged abduction of environmental activists.
On 29th September 2023, the two activists filed a petition before the Supreme Court, seeking writs of amparo and habeas data as protection from members of the Philippine Army, Philippine National Police, National Security Council and National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. The two may also face perjury charges for recanting their sworn statements.
Peasant activist abducted in Negros
An activist was abducted on 15th September 2023 by suspected state agents in Negros Occidental.
According to Karapatan, Bea Lopez, a 26-year-old peasant organiser and resident of Sitio Langud, Cauayan, Negros Occidental; and tricycle driver Peter Agravante, a resident of Sitio Tagnok, Sipalay City were seized in Sipalay. They were reportedly on the way to Barangay Gil Montilla when they were accosted by masked and armed men in a white van who forced them into the vehicle. The tricycle the victims were on was also taken and loaded on the back of a pick-up vehicle.
On 17th September 2023, Agravante’s body was found on a cliff in Barangay Nagbo-alao, Basay, Negros Oriental. His wrists were bound with rope and his eyes, mouth and ankles bound with duct tape. He had a gunshot wound to the head.
Families of the disappeared seek justice through implementation of law
Families of victims of enforced disappearances on 30th August 2023 called on the government to step up its use of a landmark law that was meant to give justice and protection to victims.
The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act was signed in 2012 under then-president Benigno Aquino III after at least 16 years of intense lobbying by human rights groups and families of victims. However, the authorities have fallen short in implementing it.
The Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) and Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) said that the continued failure to properly enforce the law had led to more violations.
Data from FIND as of June 2023 shows that there are at least 2,078 documented cases of enforced disappearances in the country since Martial Law. Out of this number, 1,165 are still missing while 663 surfaced alive and 280 were found dead. FIND said no person had been held accountable for the recorded disappearances of 183 people since the law’s implementation in 2012.
Aside from the law, the families also urged the government to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
Lawyer in Abra killed
Lawyer Maria Saniata Alzate's killing bears a haunting resemblance to the murder of Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao Vice-Chairman Juan Macababbad in 2021. https://t.co/VMs2GiotPL— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) September 18, 2023
Lawyer Saniata Alzate was shot dead on 14th September 2023 by gunmen riding in tandem on a motorcycle while she was in her car parked in front of her house in Bangued, Abra.
Karapatan reported that Alzate, former president of the Abra chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), had handled a case for writ of amparo for a man who was abducted, tortured and illegally detained in Bangued, Abra in January 2023. Impleaded in the petition for a protection order which was granted in February were eight high-ranking PNP officers in Abra, six of whom are currently under investigation.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) condemned the killing and said that two unidentified assailants on board a motorcycle got close to the lawyer’s vehicle and opened fire at least eight times.
Alzate is the latest victim in a string of attacks against attorneys and judges in the past few years. According to Karapatan, since 2016, at least 61 lawyers, judges and prosecutors have been killed under the Duterte regime. In the 44 months from 1st July 2016 to 28th February 2020 alone, 67 lawyers, prosecutors and judges were violently attacked in the Philippines, resulting in 55 deaths.
Labour organiser killed by police
Gabriela Women's Party filed House Resolution 1360 to probe the killing of labor organizer Jude Thaddeus Fernandez by the elements of the PNP-CIDG and on the pattern of trade union killings under the Marcos Jr. administration.#JusticeForJudeFernandez pic.twitter.com/nUKRYWV8hv— Gabriela Partylist #BabaeBantayBudget2024 (@GabrielaWomenPL) October 9, 2023
Union leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez, 67, was killed on 29th September 2023 in the house where he was staying in Binangonan, Rinzal Province. A division of the Philippine National Police reportedly entered Fernandez’s home and shot him dead.
Fernandez was a member of the progressive Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and a trade unionist since the Martial Law era. He was mobilising his community in a campaign to raise wages and end government corruption and human rights violations.
The government said in a statement: “We will take concrete steps to mobilize all relevant government agencies towards effectively conducting a thorough and impartial investigation into the matter.”
On 7th October 2023, an alliance of workers' organisations called on the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to immediately identify, relieve and detain all cops involved in the killing, pending an investigation. Activists refuted claims made by the Philippine National Police - Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP - CIDG) that Fernandez resisted arrest and fought back while authorities were serving a search warrant.
According to the Solidarity Center, four union leaders and members have been murdered in the Philippines in 2023. They added: “We are outraged by this unconscionable act and denounce the escalating violence against union leaders and working people in the Philippines and around the world for seeking to improve their working conditions and ensure their fundamental democratic rights.”
Court acquits Reina Mae Nasino and two fellow activists
A Manila court acquitted activist Reina Mae Nasino and two of her fellow activists after three years in a case pertaining to illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
In a decision in July 2023, Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 47 Presiding Judge John Benedict Medina granted Nasino, Ram Carlo Bautista and Alma Moran the demurrer to evidence.
As previously documented, the three were arrested at the office of Bayan-Manila in Tondo in November 2019. The raid was part of coordinated operations by the Philippine National Police in several offices and homes of members of NGOs in Manila and Negros Occidental. Nasino asserted that the charges against her and her colleagues were trumped up and planted by the police.
Complaints filed against 14 for protest around State of the Nation Address.
In September 2023, the Quezon City Police Department filed complaints against 14 activists who participated in the protest actions during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s State of the Nation Address in July 2023.
The complaint, filed by Police Corporal Jordan A. Barbado, alleges that “no permit to conduct rally was issued” to some of the participants in the SONA protests. The QCPD cited Section 13(a) of Batasang Pambansa Bilang 880, which prohibits the “holding of any public assembly without first having secured that written permit.”
Bayan Southern Tagalog (ST) called the complaint “yet another case of harassment from state forces to silence dissent.” In a statement, Kyle Angelo Salgado noted that the organisations in question are covered by the permit issued to Bayan on 20th July 2023 through Secretary General Raymond Palatino.
The University of the Philippines Los Baños Department of Humanities also condemned the charges, particularly against University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) students Maranan, Salgado, Rementilla and Garcia. The Department pointed out that Garcia and Rementilla are “victims of the military’s continued harassment.”
Of the 14 mass leaders, a significant number have been subjected to red-tagging and other forms of harassment.
Police file case against protester who burned effigy
QCPD goes after artist behind Marcos effigy burned at Sona https://t.co/8zhkkoUoc8— RPS Toledo SJ (@rtoledosj) August 24, 2023
The Quezon City Police District (QCPD) on 25th August 2023 filed charges against a protester who burned the effigy of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. at a rally during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2023.
Police said Max Santiago and three other members of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) burned the effigy of the President during a gathering of protesters along Commonwealth Avenue in Barangay UP Campus, Quezon City on 24th July.
Santiago was the artist behind the papier maché artwork titled “Doble Kara (Two-faced),” which depicted a giant gold coin with a dual image of the president — a visual swipe at the Marcos ill-gotten wealth cases.
Santiago was charged for violation of Section 48, Paragraph 3, which prohibits burning of solid wastes, under Republic Act 9003 (Ecological Waste Management Act of 2000), and Republic Act 8749 or the Clean Air Act.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) president Renato Jr. Reyes, posted on Facebook that they view the complaint filed against Santiago as an attack on freedom of expression. Reyes asked the artists’ community to support the charged members and to stand firm on their right to freedom of expression.
Journalist sues red-taggers
Journalist Atom Araullo and lawyer Tony La Viña arrive here at the QC Hall of Justice on Monday, September 11. Araullo is set to file a P2-M damage suit against SMNI hosts Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey Celiz for their red-tagging, “defamatory statements.” @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/A7q1wlzu65— Iya Gozum (@iyagozum) September 11, 2023
Broadcast journalist Atom Araullo filed a P2 million (USD 35,180) damage suit on 10th September 2023 against Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) hosts Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey Celiz, seeking redress for “damages and injuries suffered due to defamatory statements maliciously disseminated.”
Araullo said red-tagging had been affecting his work as well as putting him and his family under emotional duress. Aside from its personal effect, he said red-tagging is part of a bigger campaign to suppress the press.
The complaint was filed electronically together with his counsel’s from the Movement Against Disinformation (MAD). He filed the case physically at the Office of the Prosecutor in Quezon City the next day.
The legal action was sought to “hold accountable the two SMNI hosts for their wrongful acts and to highlight how red-tagging foments hate, abuse and violence against journalists and truth-tellers”.
Court acquits Maria Ressa, Rappler of tax evasion
Philippines Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa acquitted of last tax evasion case https://t.co/8Wdw6cwuBP— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) September 12, 2023
Maria Ressa, a Nobel prize winner and co-founder of the online news site Rappler, was acquitted of a tax evasion charge in September 2023. This was another legal victory in her battle against multiple charges filed during the government of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
She has long maintained the cases against her and Rappler, which she co-founded in 2012, were politically motivated. Ressa and Rappler had faced five government charges of tax evasion stemming from the 2015 sale of Philippine depositary receipts, which is a way for companies to raise money from foreign investors. A court acquitted them on four charges in January. The fifth was heard by a different court, which cleared her and Rappler of wrongdoing. Ressa and Rappler face two more court cases.
Ressa and former colleague Rey Santos Jr are appealing a cyber-libel conviction that carries a nearly seven-year jail sentence. Rappler, meanwhile, is challenging a Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission order to close for allegedly violating a ban on foreign ownership in media. The case relates to an investment by the US-based Omidyar Network, which was later transferred to Rappler’s local managers to stave off efforts by Duterte to shut the site down.