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Who broke them in the first place?

/ 04:06 AM February 16, 2021

The case of the two Aeta men charged under the new anti-terrorism law has become curiouser and curiouser after government lawyers hijacked their case at the Supreme Court, where they asked to be allowed to join those challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Unknown to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), which filed the petition-in-intervention for Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, Solicitor General Jose Calida came to the second round of oral arguments on the anti-terrorism law last Tuesday with a coup of sorts. He told the Supreme Court that the two Aeta men were forced by the NUPL to sign the petition in exchange for P1,000, and were now withdrawing it.

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This development, Calida told the high court, was a “supervening event that will affect the oral arguments and the resolution of this case,’’ and he wanted to read the affidavits and present videos of the Aeta men’s change of heart. But Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta cut him off, disclosing that the high court had in fact dismissed the petition.

The NUPL denied forcing the Aeta men to file the petition, in which Gurung and Ramos said they were tortured and falsely accused of terrorism by the military following an alleged encounter with communist insurgents in Zambales last year.

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“We would like to know when they talked to the Aetas? Were there counsels present? Why were we not aware?’’ NUPL chair Neri Colmenares said in objecting to Calida’s manifestation.

A day after Calida’s manifestation, Gurung and Ramos were presented in a press conference by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac). Presidential Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy and National Commission on Indigenous Peoples director for legal affairs Marlon Bosantog (whose job, it must be noted, is the protection of the well-being of indigenous peoples) acted as the government handlers, alternately assuaging the distraught Aeta men and coaching them with leading questions; the men confirmed they had indeed dropped NUPL and would now be represented by the Public Attorney’s Office and the NCIP.

At one point, Gurung broke down and lamented their fate: “Dati ang saya-saya namin sa bundok, pagtatanim… Nung wala pang gumulo sa bundok namin, ang saya po ng mga pamilya namin. Nung nawasak na po, parang ang lungkot-lungkot na po dahil hindi na buo yung pamilya.”

Badoy told him: “Huwag po kayong mawawalan ng pag-asa kasi meron naman pong pag-asa. Nagsisimula na ho tayo ngayon, puwede pong mabuo yung mga nawasak at puwedeng maghilom ang mga sugat nating lahat dito… Hindi kayo mag-isa sa laban na ito, kasama n’yo po ang buong gobyerno dito.”

The hypocrisy is cruel and galling. As NUPL lawyer Bonifacio Cruz correctly pointed out, it was the government that broke these men and ruined their lives in the first place. “It’s them who arrested, who tortured, who had them jailed, and who charged them under the anti-terror law,’’ Cruz said.

In their petition at the Supreme Court, Gurung said he was mauled, placed inside a sack, and hung upside down, suffocated with cigarette smoke in a plastic bag, and forced to eat his own feces to make him admit that he is a member of the New People’s Army.

This serious charge of torture, submitted to the Olongapo City regional trial court where the two are facing charges of terrorism and illegal possession of firearms and explosives, has not been specifically refuted, either in Calida’s manifestation or during the NTF-Elcac press conference.

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The government’s exploitation of the two Aeta men certainly points to the importance of their case, which Associate Justice Marvic Leonen suggested could be the “actual case’’ that would warrant a judicial review of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. A total of 37 petitions have been filed at the Supreme Court challenging the law for its broad scope and overreach. Without an actual case, the petitioners are mounting a facial challenge on grounds that the law, on its face, deters protected speech and other fundamental rights.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dismissed the Aeta men’s petition, to allow the regional trial court to first handle the case. And yet, the Aeta men are being used as fodder in the government’s all-out bid to implement the anti-terrorism law.

This is not the first time Calida has hijacked complainants. In July 2019, Calida also caused fishermen from Zambales and Palawan to withdraw their signatures in a writ of kalikasan asking the government to protect the West Philippine Sea against Chinese intrusion, claiming they were also deceived into signing.

As the first case ever filed under the anti-terrorism law, the case against Gurung and Ramos ought to be handled fairly and transparently, and away from government agents not shy of using every dirty trick in the book. If the government really feels for the Aeta men and have their best interests at heart, NUPL’s Cruz has this challenge: “Why don’t they just drop the case?’’

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