Cracking down on military abuses
On the suspicion that the military had abducted activists Elizabeth “Loi” Magbanua and Alipio “Ador” Juat who have gone missing since May 3, the Supreme Court recently issued a writ of amparo or protection order on the two labor organizers.
The writ of amparo is a remedy available to any person whose right to life, liberty, and security has been violated or threatened. Like a writ of habeas data, it has a preventive and curative role in curbing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Following the issuance of the writ, the Court of Appeals last week ordered senior officials of the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to conduct a “comprehensive and exhaustive” investigation into Magbanua and Juat’s disappearance. The court gave the respondents—AFP chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro and other senior military officers, and retired Gen. Ricardo F. De Leon, DND officer in charge—six months to submit a written report explaining the results of their action. The military has been mum on the issue so far.
After their arrest in Valenzuela City, Juat was able to tell his daughter that he was in Camp Aguinaldo but is not allowed to leave. They have not been heard of since.
A January 2022 Human Rights Watch report noted that “the Philippine military has long been responsible for large numbers of extrajudicial killings and torture of alleged communists,” with Red-tagging becoming unofficial government policy with the creation of the hugely funded National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict formerly led by a retired army general. Dozens of activists previously Red-tagged or described by the task force as members or supporters of armed communist rebels have been arrested, detained, or killed in alleged shootouts with authorities.
The Red-tagging often comes with nonbailable serious charges, as in the case of 81-year-old Atheliana “Atel” Hijos, chair of the women’s group Gabriela in the Caraga region. Hijos was arrested on Aug. 30 in Agusan del Norte province for her supposed involvement in the kidnapping and serious illegal detention of a member of a paramilitary group in 2018, and for allegedly being a ranking member of the communist movement. The rights group Karapatan has described the charges as “a blatant lie” given Hijos’ advanced age and frail health. The military has refused to disclose where the activist was being held, despite its official statement that her family was free to visit her.
The same charges were filed against Dr. Natividad Castro, a regional leader of Karapatan, who was immediately flown to Mindanao after being arrested by the police in February this year. Castro, who served “lumad” (indigenous) communities in Mindanao, was accused of being involved in the “felonious kidnapping” of a member of a government-armed militia in 2018. The kidnapping charges were junked by a regional trial court (RTC) in Bayugan City, Agusan del Sur, which ruled that the manner of her arrest was “offensive to due process.” On June 16, however, RTC Judge Ferdinand Villanueva ordered the rearrest of Castro, whom the military tagged as a high-ranking communist guerrilla, again without proof.
The climate of impunity that enables the military to falsely Red-tag and arrest activists and opposition figures —often with defective warrants and on trumped-up charges—recalls the dreaded era of retired Army general Jovito Palparan Jr. Also known as “The Butcher,” Palparan’s rabid anticommunist crusade led to gross human rights violations, including the kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and enforced disappearance of students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño in 2006. An eyewitness and fellow detainee detailed how Palparan and his soldiers viciously tortured the two women to get them to admit to being communists. Indicted in 2011, Palparan went into hiding for almost three years but was finally arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole in 2018.
While the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have upheld the rights of those unfairly targeted by the military’s anticommunist campaign in recent cases, the country’s judicial system must also put in place strong mechanisms to avoid abuses in the issuance of warrants, and severely sanction judges involved in such unscrupulous practice that puts life and liberty at risk. The courts should chastise the military as well for its lack of response on the case of the two missing labor leaders. Reporting on their arrest shouldn’t take six months after all, during which period anything can happen, given the military’s undeniable record on the torture and forced disappearance of detainees.
Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s recent description of the new administration’s “agenda on transparency and accountability” should be given flesh. And what better way to do that than by cracking down on continuing military abuses?
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