SUPPORT continued to pour in following the arrest of five young activists, including a community journalist and a church worker, in Tacloban City allegedly for illegal possession of firearms, ammunition, and explosives in a pre-dawn raid last February 7.
On February 10, formal charges were filed against the suspects, and if proven guilty, they would face six years to 20 years imprisonment for illegal possession of firearms and lifetime imprisonment for illegal possession of explosives.
Naomi Klein, Canadian activist, author, and filmmaker joined the petition along with The World Organization Against Torture for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the activists.
Klein, who previously worked for a film project with Marissa Cabaljao, one of the arrested activists, said the “their safety and very lives are in jeopardy right now.”
“Last year more environmentalists were killed in the Philippines than any other country in the world,” Klein wrote online.
“We are devastated to learn of this inhumane action taken by the Philippine Government. This situation is dire,” added Filipino-Canadian filmmaker and activist Sean Devlin.
Devlin, director of the 2018 documentary movie “When Storm Fades” which was based on the 2013 Super Typhoon Yolanda that devastated the central Philippines, started the online petition which is now signed by over 3, 000 people around the world.
Aside from 33-year-old Cabaljao, whose works include promoting the shelter and land rights of Typhoon Yolanda survivors for People Surge, the four other arrested activists were Mira Legion, 21, of Bayan-Eastern Visayas; Marielle Domequil, 22, of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines; Alexander Abinguna, 24, of Katungod-Sinirangan Bisayas; and blocktime radio anchor Frenchie Mae Cumpio, 21, of Eastern Vista, an alternative news media in Tacloban.
“Cumpio’s arrest is yet another blow to press freedom amid the shrinking democratic space in the country,” said the International Association for Women in Radio and Television.
While numerous firearms, explosives, and communist-related paraphernalia were confiscated during the raid, the progressive groups maintained that the arrest was part of the government’s “intensified crackdown” against those who resisted the “iron-fist rule” under President Rodrigo Duterte administration.
“They were arrested in a midnight raid...which, according to witnesses, breached procedures. The warrant was not read beforehand and the activists were forced to vacate the building before the search commenced. To their surprise, high-powered firearms were then found and confiscated from their offices,” said Tug-ani, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines (UP)-Cebu.
Before their arrest, the activists said they have been subjected to various surveillance following the Executive Order No. 70, the government’s counterinsurgency policy.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said “the alarming series of attacks against human rights defenders in the country has been linked to elements of the government.”
According to the commission, they are “gravely concerned about the patterns of harassments directed towards progressive individuals working with people’s organizations in the country.”
CHR also recalled the other alleged crackdown of dissenters around the country that started this year.
“Some government officials have tried to connect human rights defenders with communist groups and terrorist organizations among others to pursue a politically motivated defamation campaign against them,” it said.
“We cannot further reiterate that the State should develop protection mechanisms that support and safeguard our human rights defenders, particularly those who are facing high risks such as individuals working for indigenous people’s rights, land, and environmental concerns; journalists; and women human rights defenders,” added the commission as they launched their own investigation over the issue.
With the “intensified implementation” of Executive Order No. 70, the commission petitioned the government “to rescind the policy as it has been consistently used to justify threats and intimidation of individuals and organizations working for the improvement of the human rights and welfare of various marginalized, disadvantaged, and vulnerable sectors of society.”
The army maintained that Cumpio is a high-ranking communist official in the region, adding that the houses where the activists stayed “were being maintained by the communist-terrorist groups of Eastern Visayas as their safe houses in Tacloban City.”
“Incidental to the lawful search, the government security forces arrested the communist-terrorist groups who were found to have an actual and/or constructive control and possession of illegal firearms, ammunition and other contraband items inside the searched houses,” the army said.
Cash amounting to P557,360 was also found during the raid.
Regional army commander Major General Pio Diñoso III said the arrest was part of their mission “to end local communist armed conflict in the region.”
Meanwhile, Atty. Marlon Bosantog of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NT-Elac), said the task force “does not see the filing of cases against these young adult as a triumph but it is rather heartbreaking to see these young adults being charged with illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of explosives.”
“We do not see them as suspects or criminals but victims of radicalization,” the official told reporters in Tacloban.
According to Bosantog, no human rights were violated during their arrest.
Earlier, Major General Antonio Parlade Jr., the army’s deputy chief-of-staff for Civil-Military Operations, said that “communist rebels are using stories of alleged human rights abuses of state forces, ‘red-tagging’ to further expound their agenda via a ‘biased media.’”
He claimed that the communist rebels are behind the country’s inclusion in the 10th spot of the Terrorism Global Index.
The official added that the communist rebel group, now listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union, “has been terrorizing the countryside with its violent attacks against civilians, business sector, and even their own people.”
Defending the defenseless
Bishop Jose Colin Bagafore, national director of the Catholic Church’s social action arm Caritas Philippines, said that they are “in solidarity with all the church groups maliciously and unfairly red-tagged by the different elements of government, and call on a more judicious exercise of power so as to see things in the light of unbiased action and truthful judgment.”
“We believe that such actions, mostly deemed to weaken the Church’s presence on-ground, does not only jeopardize the purposeful steps made towards peace, education and development, but haphazardly discriminates the poor of their rights towards community building and sustainable progress,” he said.
The church official assured the public that they “will continue to condemn acts of indignation, discrimination and unfair use of power that will demean the poor and the vulnerable.”
“We will exert all efforts and resources to contribute to the restoration of mutual respect and justice, so all will co-exist in harmony and peace,” the bishop said.
While not commenting on the arrest of the five activists in the city, Catholic priest Mark Ivo Velasquez, however, said “it is a good thing that the young are concerned on questions such as social justice, on upholding human dignity and the rights of the human person.”
“These things are rooted in the Gospel and flow from it. The social doctrine of the Church shows that at the root of the good news of salvation is the transformation of human society through the grace of Christ and the power of the Gospel,” Velasquez told Sunstar Philippines.
“As salt of earth and light of the world the baptized are called—through their direct participation in nation-building as members of the community—to work for the promotion of justice and humane society that promotes the authentic progress of the human person,” he added.
The priest maintained that “on one hand, young people are invited to have a voice and a role in building up this humane society.”
“In the case of the baptized, as Christians, they should be guided by the Gospel of Christ, who, though while his kingdom wasn’t of this earth, nevertheless enjoined his disciples to be agents of social transformation. They have been voices that have been critical of the inequalities that they have seen in society,” said Velasquez.
“I believe that such criticism is very much a consequence of the diversity that is natural to any democracy. Dissent—though negative by nature, plays a part in the progress of any society. I do not mean, however, that violent and destructive means of dissent could easily be justified because of this,” the priest added.
Fr. Kim Margallo, former youth commission director of the Palo Archdiocese, said that “no matter how the church and the institution would have worked hard for the betterment of the young people’s future, it will still remain futile if it is given to the hands of young people who lack guidance and mentoring to the truth and what is right.”
According to the priest, the church has a lot of programs for the youth even in some schools in Tacloban.
“The archdiocese youth ministry has many programs from the parish level up to the diocesan levels. in the campus ministry some priests are working over it,” added Margallo on how the church takes care of the youth.
He, however, said that “there is a proper venue to air our sentiments.”
“In fact the church has social teachings to guide us on how to do things and to do it right. Airing issues and even dissent are meticulously studied by the church authority and both sides are first checked before giving her support or even comments. The role of the church is to shed light on the cloudy shade of truth,” added Margallo. (SunStar Philippines)