Conviction of former General involved in disappearances of activists important step for justice


Army General convicted for kidnapping students

On 17th September 2018, the Malolos Regional Trial Court convicted retired army General Jovito Palparan, nicknamed "The Butcher" and sentenced him to life imprisonment for the kidnapping of two leftist student activists in 2006. The judge Alexander Tamayo also convicted two of Palparan's co-accused, an army lieutenant and a sergeant, and ordered the three to pay 300,000 Philippine peso (USD 5,500) each in damages to the families of the two students.

The two university students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan were kidnapped from a rented home in the town of Hagonoy in Bulacan province, 36 kilometres north of the capital Manila, in June 2006 by people believed to be soldiers. Empeno, who was then 22, was doing research on the plight of farmers in the province, while Cadapan, then 29, was a community organiser for a leftist farmers group in Bulacan. The two women were believed to have been raped, tortured and later killed by soldiers, but their bodies have not been found.

According to Amnesty International, Palparan led a unit in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines which was notorious for human rights violations. Many activists and suspected supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution. Prosecutors originally charged Palparan in 2011 but he evaded authorities for years and was arrested only in 2014.

The National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) welcomed the ruling, saying that:

"[Palparan's] conviction sends the message that perpetrators of hideous human rights violations will meet their match in the fortitude of the mothers, the strength of the mass movement, the courage of human rights defenders, and the value of good lawyering for the people."

Human rights group Karapatan claimed to have recorded at least 326 human rights violations by Palparan, which involved 1,219 victims in Oriental Mindoro province alone. According to data from the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND), there are at least 1,996 documented cases of enforced disappearance in the Philippines since the administration of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986). Out of this number, 1,165 are still missing while 587 surfaced alive and 244 were found dead.

Trial of prisoner of conscience, Senator De Lima finally begins

The trial of Senator Leila de Lima finally began in August 2018, 18 months after she was arrested and detained. De Lima has been accused of being involved in the proliferation of illegal drugs at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa during her stint as justice secretary, charges which many believe are politically-motivated.

She was charged for one count of "conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading" before the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 205. The Department of Justice (DOJ) spent months amending the charges against De Lima, changing it from "illegal drug trading" to "conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading". De Lima refused to enter a plea before Judge Amelia Fabros Corpuz, calling it “a sham case". So far, the DOJ has based its charges on the testimonies of convicted drug lords, who have turned state witness against De Lima.

According to reports, the police have been randomly inspecting private correspondence to De Lima and limiting visits. The police also denied requests of several groups of foreign missions, such as European and ASEAN parliamentarians, to visit her in detention.

As documented previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, Senator De Lima, is an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous war on drugs. On 29th May 2018, she received a human rights defender award from Amnesty International who considers her a prisoner of conscience. In April 2018, the European Parliament issued a resolution on the Philippines wherein they called for the immediate release of Senator Leila De Lima and other human rights activists who remain in prison.

Rights group says at least 60 activists killed in 2017

A new report titled “Stop the Killings” by human rights group Front Line Defenders (FLD) highlighted that the Philippines was among six countries with the highest number of killings of human rights defenders (HRD) in 2017. According to their report at least 60 activists were killed in the Philippines in 2017.

According to the report, released in September 2018, the climate of impunity in the Philippines combined with the government encouragement of extrajudicial killings of alleged drug users, as well as the increasingly hard line taken by the army towards the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, a broad-based alliance of left-wing individuals and organisations, has resulted in the serious deterioration in the situation for HRDs in the country.

FLD said that judicial harassment and criminalisation of HRDs remains common, with politicians and private actors such as mining companies, using the criminal justice system to silence those who oppose their interests. HRDs have been accused of violent crimes or of being members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party. Human rights defenders have also reported instances of close monitoring and surveillance by security officials.

Peaceful assembly

Workers protesting low wages in Bulacan violently dispersed

On 15th June 2018, the Bulacan provincial police violently dispersed workers who went on strike for 12 days to protest low wages and unhealthy working conditions. Around 300 workers from NutriAsia, a condiments factory, organised a protest in Meycauayan, Bulacan calling for implementation of a Labour department order to regularise 80 employees.

According to rights group Karapatan and labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno, the company’s security personnel and police forces used excessive force to disperse the group after a religious service was held outside the factory. At least ten were injured and 19 NutriAsia workers and supporters were subsequently arrested. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also reported that two journalists were assaulted and threatened while covering the protests.

NutriAsia meanwhile blamed the picketing workers and accused them of sparking the violence. They claimed that one of the protesters had supposedly fired a shot and hurled rocks.

Labour group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) condemned the violence saying:

“KMU condemns the continuing violence against the workers of NutriAsia, who have been on strike due to the management's refusal to implement a DOLE order for the regularisation of contractual workers…we call on the Duterte administration to implement its own meager restrictions on the illegal practice of contractualisation, instead of siding with management and harming the workers in their legitimate protest.”


Supreme Court upholds conviction of activist 

On 1st August 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a 2013 conviction of Filipino activist and artist Carlos Celdran. Celdran was charged in 2010 for a protest in support of reproductive rights and convicted for violating Article 133 of the Penal Code for “offending religious feelings”. Celdran was sentenced to serve a minimum prison term of two months and 21 days and a maximum term of one year, one month and 11 days.

Celdran, a political cartoonist turned performance artist, staged the protest on 30th September 2010 during an religious meeting in the Manila Cathedral. Celdran dressed as Filipino national hero José Rizal and held a sign saying “Demaso”, the name of a corrupt friar in Rizal’s 1887 novel Noli Me Tángere. The protest targeted church opposition to a controversial reproductive health bill, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, which passed in 2012 and guaranteed a universal right to contraception, fertility treatment, sexual education and maternal care.

Condemning the decision, Amnesty International said:

“Amnesty International strongly calls for the conviction to be quashed, and for the government to initiate a review into Article 133 of the country’s Revised Penal Code, a provision which dates back to Spanish colonial times…failure to overturn Carlos Celdran’s conviction would create a dangerous precedent for the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the Philippines.”