Trigger warning: Mentions of rape, torture, and suicide
A 15-year old girl from Lopez, Quezon filed multiple charges against a Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) member of the 59th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) after she was reportedly kidnapped, tortured, and raped.
In a press conference held last January 21 by Gabriela Southern Tagalog (ST), “Belle”, whose identity remains private for security reasons, recounted her suffering at the hands of military forces who abducted her on July 27, 2020.
The victim and her mother “Ofel”, also not her real name, filed cases in the Department of Justice (DOJ) against CAFGU member Leoven Julita for violating Republic Act (RA) 9262 or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act of 2004” and RA 7610 or the “Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act”.
Alongside Julita, other individuals were also charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention. These include his friend and alleged accomplice Arnil Abrencillo and five more men-in-uniform who were involved in Belle’s abduction, Leoven’s parents Leonito and Vilma Julita, and Desiree Salamat of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Lopez.
Then-commanding officer of Southern Luzon Command (SOLCOM) and former spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division Maj. Gen. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., and 59th IBPA commanding officer Lt. Col. Edward Canlas will also face charges for violating RA 9745 or the Anti-torture Act of 2009.
Atty. Minerva Lopez, member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and the legal counsel of Gabriela, assured the victim and her family that the cases filed by Belle against her perpetrators are solidified by the validity of their evidence and the witnesses’ testimonies.
“Dapat managot ang lahat ng sangkot sa krimeng ito. Ang kasong ito ni Belle ay nagpapatunay lang na napakarami pang paglabag sa karapatang pantao ang dulot ng militarisasyon sa Quezon na higit pang pinapasahol ng NTF-ELCAC,” expressed Shirley Songalia, spokesperson of Gabriela ST.
[“Everyone involved in this case must be held accountable. Belle’s case only proves that the militarization in Quezon has caused numerous human rights violations, and NTF-ELCAC only made it worse.”]
On January 20, 2022, Belle appeared in the online preliminary investigation with the DOJ.
According to Belle’s statement, on July 27, 2020, she and her younger sibling were about to buy mobile load at a nearby store when they were suddenly stopped by a white van. She was then seized by the arm and was forcibly dragged into the vehicle.
Upon seeing her kidnapper’s faces, Belle identified the two of them as Julita and Abrencillo.
Belle, who was 14 years old at the time, was brought to the military camp of the 59th IB and was detained in a small room where she was threatened, interrogated, and tortured mercilessly.
From July 28 to July 31 of the same year, she was punched and hit by military forces, coercing her to admit that her mother is part of a communist group.
“In-interrogate ako at sinaktan. Pinilit akong umamin na NPA [New People’s Army] raw ang magulang ko kahit magsasaka lang naman [ang] pamilya ko. Pinagbibintangan nila si mama na [kasapi] raw ng NPA,” said Belle.
[“I was tortured and beaten. They forced me to say that my parents are NPA members even though they are just farmers. They accused my mother of being a member of the NPA.”]
Belle also mentioned that upon refusing to say something against her mother, she was transferred by Julita into his house on August 1 and was detained there for two days with the help of his parents.
Came the day of Belle’s nightmare, on August 5, she was brought back to the camp, and was raped and tortured by Julita several times, while the other military officers were laughing outside the room.
“Pagbalik doon, interogasyon at torture ulit ang naranasan ko. Doon na rin nangyari ang panggagahasa sa’kin,” she lamented.
[“After being returned to the camp, I once again experienced interrogation and torture. That was when I was also raped.”]
On August 7, the military transferred her to DSWD’s custody and was again illegally detained in the office of one Marlene Chan, a DSWD officer in Lopez, Quezon.
Belle was forced to sign a letter made by Julita stating that she voluntarily submitted herself to the care of DSWD. Her refusal to sign the statement was firm as it was against her will, but she was again threatened by a soldier who warned her that he would kill her and her family.
“Isang punit mo pa, papatayin na kita,” Belle recounted as told to her by the officer.
[“Tear the letter one more time and I am going to kill you.”]
Belle added that she tried to disclose to the DSWD officer what she had been through while she was locked up in the military camp, but she was only met with threats yet again.
After a few days with the DSWD, they attempted to bring her to a police station, but the station refused because she was still a minor. She was subsequently taken to a policewoman’s house before being returned to the DSWD.
Finally, on August 13, Belle’s sister went to the DSWD office where she was detained. She was also forced to sign a letter, and eventually signed it out of desperation to reclaim Belle.
Despite Belle’s account during the press conference, the 59th IBPA continues to deny the allegations thrown by Gabriela ST.
“Pawang kasinungalingan lamang lahat ng inyong [Gabriela ST] sinulat at hindi kami kailanman magigimbal sa lahat ng inyong akusasyon,” the 59th IBPA wrote in their Facebook page last January 22.
[“Gabriela ST wrote mere lies and we will never be shaken by your accusations.”]
In a Facebook post last January 24, Gabriela ST responded and asserted that it is the 59th IBPA who makes false claims.
“Hindi nyo na malilinlang ang taumbayan sa pambababoy at pagpapahirap nyo sa mga kababaihan at mamamayan ng Quezon. Pawang kasinungalingan ang inyong sinulat at hindi rin kami magigimbal sa pagtanggi ninyo dahil wala naman kayong ibang ginawa kundi pagtakpan ang lahat ng mga paglabag ninyo ng karapatang pantao,” Gabriela ST wrote.
[“You can never deceive the people after the abuse and suffering that you brought on the women and residents of Quezon. You wrote mere lies and we will also never be shaken by your denial, because you have done nothing but hide your violations against human rights.”]
In another Facebook post, the 59th IBPA accused Gabriela ST of using a child as a tool to discredit the army and the government. However, Belle’s mother herself said that they were the ones who reached out to the human rights group to seek help.
“Naglakas loob kaming dumulog sa Gabriela kasi alam kong sila ang makakatulong sa’min. Bilang ina, ang sakit na nararamdaman ng anak ko ay nararamdaman ko rin,” expressed Ofel, Belle’s mother.
[“I mustered all the courage and sought help from Gabriela because I knew that they would help us. As a mother, I also feel the pain that my child feels.”]
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has recently confirmed that Belle’s complaint was filed at the DOJ main office, but released no further details regarding the issue.
Prior to Belle’s reported abduction and torture under the custody of the military, her family revealed that they had already encountered harassment from state forces.
Ofel was a member of Coco Levy Funds Ibalik Sa Amin (CLAIM). Since 2007, Ofel’s family had been receiving threats and violence from military officers.
Ofel’s husband and son – Belle’s older brother – were likewise subjected to red-tagging, illegal detention, and soon became political prisoners; but her husband died in prison while their case’s hearing was still in process.
This is reminiscent of the case of Antonio Molina, a political prisoner in Palawan who also died under the custody of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
He spent his remaining days in prison, and received no immediate healthcare from the police when he was diagnosed with cancer. Molina was arrested with six other activists for trumped-up charges of murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Meanwhile, Ofel shared how they suffered because of the continuous intimidation from the military.
“Dalawang taon na kaming hindi nakakauwi sa [aming] bahay… Sapilitan kaming pinapasuko, [at] tinataniman ng mga baril sa loob ng bahay, [ngunit] wala kaming baril dahil [mga] magniniyog kami.”
[“We haven’t been home for two years… We have been forced to surrender, and guns have been planted inside our homes, but we don’t possess any firearms because we are mere coconut farmers.”]
Even after being returned to her family, Belle’s suffering from the military was still far from over.
According to her mother, Belle attempted to relive her normal life by returning to school, but the military forces continued on harassing her. She mentioned that the van used in her abduction was spotted around her school while she was trying to get her modules.
Belle’s family also started receiving death threats through texts, calls, and chats from unknown Facebook users around January 2021.
Ofel then revealed during the press conference that Belle had repeatedly voiced her desire to commit suicide because of what was done to her.
“Ilang beses [siyang] nagbantang magpapakamatay at sinasabing wala nang kwenta ang buhay [niya] dahil sa nangyari sa kaniya.”
[“She threatened to commit suicide several times and said that her life was already worthless because of what happened to her.”]
Fatal consequences of counterinsurgency
This was not the first time that a member of CLAIM Quezon was harassed by the military. It is worth recalling the case of 485 coconut farmers in Agdangan, Quezon who were forced to surrender as affiliates of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army – National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) by the 201st IB and the NTF-ELCAC in November 2021.
These farmers who were coerced by the military to surrender as rebels were all members of CLAIM, of which Belle’s mother was also a part of. The farmers were forced to attend a “program” and sign forms affirming their membership in the communist organization.
In addition, two civilian farmers, Jorge Coronacion and Arnold Buri, were slain as a result of a series of attacks of the armed forces against Quezon peasants.
In an interview with the Perspective, Anakbayan Quezon spokesperson Romeo Jara revealed that these two were not affiliated with any progressive organizations red-tagged by the armed forces.
Meanwhile, in the early months of 2021, more than 26,000 individuals were put in danger as a result of the continuous aerial bombing by the AFP in South Quezon, following an encounter between the AFP and NPA.
Worsening VAW cases
According to Joms Salvador, Secretary General of Gabriela Philippines, the issue of violence against women has been referred to as a pandemic, even before the occurence of COVID-19, due to its prevalence.
She added that one in every three women in the world is subjected to sexual harassment, and that during the Duterte administration, the highest cases of Violence Against Women (VAW) were recorded.
“Bago pa ang pandemya [ay] nag-peak na sa 74 [ang] cases of VAW kada araw [sa Pilipinas],” she explained.
[“Even before the pandemic, VAW cases peaked at 74 cases per day in the Philippines.”]
She also expressed her dismay that most of the perpetrators involved in VAW cases are primary duty bearers in the protection of civil rights.
Along with the counterinsurgency in the country, Salvador believes that men-in-uniform use sexual violence as a tool of repression against civilians.
“Pinapakita ng kaso ni Belle na problematic ang whole-of-nation approach, dahil breeding ground ito ng mga HRVs [human rights violations] sa mga sibilyan, kasama [na] ang rape at VAW,” said Salvador, emphasizing that rape and other forms of sexual violence against women are political issues, violation of human rights, and a systemic model of Duterte’s counterinsurgency that primarily targets civilians.
[“Belle’s case shows that the whole-of-nation approach is problematic because it becomes a breeding ground of HRVs like rape and VAW against civilians.”]
In a Facebook post released by Mother and Children for the Protection of Human Rights, they urged everyone to stand with Belle in her fight for justice.
“Mothers and Children for the Protection of Human Rights calls everyone to stand with Belle, along with thousands of other victims of state-instigated harrasments and abuse, one of the many incidents of Violence Against Women and Children perpetrated by the fascist state. We are not only struggling for Belle’s justice, but we fight to take back the dignity of all victims of abuse,” the group said.
Before the press conference ended, Belle encouraged her fellow rape victims to fight back against their perpetrators.
“Panahon na para tumindig tayong mga biktima at singilin sa kanila ang hustisya. Sapat na ‘yung pananahimik natin nang ilang taon. Panahon naman ngayon para tayo naman ang maningil sa pambababoy na ginawa nila sa atin.”
[“It is now high time for us to stand and demand justice from our offenders. Our long years of silence is enough. Now is the time for them to pay the price of what they did to us.”] [P]
Additional reports by Yani Redoblado
Photos from Isabel Pangilinan and Ahmet Yarali (via iStock)
Layout by Angel Castillo