How ironic—or maybe not—that the Philippines marked Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, with cops taking in six union organizers and a journalist for the nonbailable crime of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Coming on the heels of President Duterte’s blow-hot-blow-cold pronouncements on human rights, the arrests followed a disturbing pattern of state operations against activists, labor leaders, even elderly people retired from serving as consultants in the aborted peace talks between the government and communist insurgents.
In that last case, the couple Agaton Topacio and Eugenia Magpantay, both 68, were shot dead in their home in Angono, Rizal, at 3 a.m. on Nov. 25, by cops who were to serve warrants. It’s unclear if Topacio and Magpantay had been accused of a crime, but police later said they “resisted arrest” and were killed in a shootout. The couple’s sons say their parents were sickly and would have called a lawyer instead of opening fire on the lawmen, as alleged. The sons also had to look high and low for their parents’ remains—a brutal search that Linda Lacaba Echanis also experienced when she set out to claim the corpse of her husband, 72-year-old peasant organizer and peace consultant Randall Echanis, who was killed in suspicious circumstances in his apartment in August.
The atmosphere has been tense of late, the days peppered with news of arrests and killings. The way it looks, the Philippine National Police under its new chief, Gen. Debold Sinas, is primed to crack down on activism and dissent, and not, say, to stop the seemingly systematic killing of lawyers (54 since 2016 by one count, with only five of the cases reaching the courts) and local officials in the President’s “narcolist” (Mayor Caesar Perez of Los Baños, Laguna, being the latest, to the grief and outrage of his constituents, although Mr. Duterte now says it’s not his list).
But on Dec. 7, the Department of Justice launched a 3-day “human rights summit” where, incredibly, the President was heard saying in a recorded message that he was “proud” of the Philippines’ being a signatory to global rights treaties. “This affirms our serious commitment in honoring and fulfilling our treaty obligations and prioritizing the human rights agenda as a means to achieve our country’s sustainable development goals,” he added, in yet another case of mixed signals that flummox and exasperate the general public. Indeed, what was the weary observer to make of those words when the President is on record as excoriating rights advocates and groups, whether local or global, insulting them and threatening them with bodily harm? And only on Dec. 3, at an event in Cavite where drugs worth P7 billion were destroyed, he engaged in a familiar theme and urged lawmen to shoot a drug user first “even if you don’t see a gun.” He went on to address rights advocates thus: “The game is killing… I say to the human rights, I don’t give a sh*t with you. My order is still the same.”
On Sunday, the Commission on Human Rights urged the police force to pay attention to questions surrounding the Dec. 10 arrests, saying it would be “for the government’s benefit, particularly the PNP,” in view of Mr. Duterte’s avowed commitment to rights treaties. Police claim to have recovered firearms, ammunition, and explosives, even “suspected subversive documents,” in the homes of Manila Today editor in chief Lady Ann Salem, and of union organizers Dennise Velasco, Rodrigo Esparago, Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz, Joel Demate, and Jaymie Gregorio. But those arrested say they were ordered to lie face down on the floor or to keep their backs turned to the raiding team. They accuse police of planting the evidence—a not unfamiliar tactic used in the government’s war on drugs, as documented by the international group Human Rights Watch (HRW). “There is a damning history of such underhanded police actions against political activists that correctly arouse suspicions,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said after the Dec. 10 arrests.
It’s a clear pattern. Early in December, police also claimed to have found a firearm and grenades in the home of Randall Echanis’ daughter, the peasant organizer Amanda Echanis, in Baggao, Cagayan. She had just delivered a son a month before she was arrested.
So how fared the nation in terms of free civic spaces in 2020? In a report issued ahead of International Human Rights Day, Civicus Monitor says the Philippines is now a mere step away from being a bottom-dweller. The global rights watchdog’s ratings are “open” (the highest grade possible, denoting an almost unhampered civic space), “narrowed,” “obstructed,” “repressed,” and “closed.”
The Philippines was rated “obstructed” in 2019.
Civicus says it was downgraded to “repressed” this year “owing to its decline in fundamental freedoms”—the prosecution of administration critics, the attack on media freedom, and the killing of rights defenders.
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