Words by Bea Rabe
No blood is spared in Duterte’s last full year in office with a legacy built on violent crackdowns on ordinary citizens and their rights. The administration’s attempts to address armed conflict with the enactment of Executive Order No. 70 and the consequent creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) leave activists, community leaders, and human rights defenders wondering if each night is their last.
Since 2016, the fight has been long and winding. The administration’s ledger continues to bleed red as extrajudicial killings from the vicious war on drugs surpass a 20,000 death toll, and is further compounded by the countless deaths of left-leaning individuals and those critical of the government and its problematic policies.
However, rights violations increased in areas that were supposed to benefit from the counter-insurgency task force. As the police and military claim areas as ‘conflict-ridden’, death and displacement become deliberate. Protests are met with unwarranted arrests and provinces become sites for relentless killings.
To name a few—the illegal detention of Cebu 8 after protesting against the signed anti-terror bill; The Lianga Killings, which refers to two separate incidents almost six years apart; the killing of known indigenous leaders in Tumandok 9; and the recent death of the New Bataan 5 in Davao de Oro.
These incidents show that the military honors no holiday as the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army announced the death of volunteer community school teachers Chad Booc, Gelejurain “Jurain” Ngujo II, and Kevin Castro in a so-called “encounter” on the 36th anniversary of the EDSA People Power. Which was also a week short of the anniversary of what is arguably the first organized crackdown on the marginalized and the dissidents, only two days after Duterte ordered the military to “finish them off”.
On March 7th last year, nine activists across four provinces in Southern Tagalog were slain in what is now known as the Bloody Sunday Massacre.
State security forces simultaneously raided the homes and offices of activists and labor organizers in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Rizal, leaving a trail of mass arrest and murder on a Sunday morning.
Six were arrested and nine killed for “resisting arrest”: Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) Cavite’s organizer, Manny Asuncion; Melvin Dasigao and Mark Bacasno of San Isidro Kasiglahan, Katarungan at Kapayapaan (SIKKAD), along with Abner and Edward Esto; Randy and Puroy Dela Cruz, who were Indigenous Dumagat murdered in Rizal; and Ariel Evangelista and wife Chai Lemita-Evangelista, who was survived by their 10-year-old son.
The first known decision against the authorities in the Bloody Sunday raids was executed by the Tanauan City Regional Trial Court in November 2021, as it voided a search warrant against Erlindo Baez from BAYAN, and dismissed the charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
This was after the police applied for 63 search warrants on March 1, 2021, before the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) for different locations in Calabarzon.
42 were granted, 19 denied, and two were withdrawn.
This, in turn, caused the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) to call on the Supreme Court to review the administrative order that permits executive and vice executive judges to issue search warrants. Seeing that these eventually led to the arrest and death of countless progressives.
In the time of Duterte, warrants have been long susceptible to abuse, should they decide to even show one. Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate says in an online press briefing, “Is it not curious that there seems to be a factory of warrants, and the targets seem to follow a pattern?” This is after urging the Supreme Court to look into the irregular issuance of search warrants by a Quezon City Executive Judge Cecyln Burgos-Villavert in 2019. It led to the arrest of 57 activists in Bacolod for alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
State forces backed by these “warrant factories” have also resulted in the case of the Human Rights 7 in December 2020, where six union organizers and a female journalist were arrested, as well as the Bloody Sunday crackdown. Their arrest warrants were all issued by the same judge.
From the get-go, the Commander in Chief was keen on enforcing his ‘hometown formula’ to the entirety of the country. Early into his term, the enactment of the state-led anti-drug campaign made “nanlaban” and “tokhang” as household terms for extrajudicial death. Assailants would then bang on doors and barge into rooms, but never identifying themselves nor procuring warrants. This deadly and oppressive strategy soon translated from alleged individuals involved with illegal drugs to alleged individuals presumed to take part in communist groups.
But as the president himself vouches for his troops to “make sure to really kill them”—accompanied by the controversial “anti-terror” bill—this administration’s platform of crushing crime is read as a “permission to kill”.
Since then, this has only fueled and heightened police and military abuse, resulting in deaths and arrests ‘without due regard for the rule of law’, as said by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. What was a “war on drugs” soon became a war on dissent.
Burden of Proof
In what the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Philippines writes after the Bloody Sunday Massacre, “The fundamental problem is [that] this campaign no longer makes any distinction between armed rebels and noncombatant activists, labor leaders, and rights defenders.”
Contrary to the “nanlaban” narrative, forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun said that the gunshot wounds in the simultaneous raids “really went for the kill”. Fortun’s examination of the remains of the nine activists noted that they were all shot in the chest, “…where vital internal organs are located, including the heart and lungs and can be deadly.” There were also bullet holes that were altered and sutured.
“Bodies are evidence. I am happy that ultimately the (relatives brought the) bodies to us. [But] somebody has to be in charge all the way from the (crime) scene to the body. Their integrities should never be compromised.” Fortun added.
According to the Philippine National Police Region 4A, the joint operations of the police and military were part of their campaign against loose firearms and explosives. They have been long targeting civilians and labeling them as personalities of “communist-terrorist groups”, often shortened as CTGs. However, this is the only accusation that they use to justify the increasing harassment and arrests against activists.
As the UN Human Rights Office pointed out, “the vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics are being increasingly institutionalized and normalized.”
The Southern Tagalog community spared no time in seeking justice. Alongside the victims’ families and colleagues, different groups, networks, and activist movements were quick to denounce the events that have unraveled. Through the human rights alliance Karapatan (TK) Timog Katagalugan, letters and appeals were sent to the officials of the Office of the Vice President (OVP), Department of Justice (DOJ), Senate of the Philippines, House of Representatives, and the Batangas local government.
Only days after the killings, DOJ endorsed the investigation to the Administrative Order No. 35 Committee (AO 35), an Inter-Agency Committee on Extra Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture, and other grave violations of the Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Persons. However, in its two-month mark, Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said that two months was already too long, and that “If the task force has shown interest in pursuing this case, they should show it.”
True enough, a year after the killings, the case has only progressed so much.
The year-long investigation did not go gentle as relatives and witnesses experience prolonged harassment as soldiers went in and out of their communities, questioning their organization and their activities. It was only this January 15 when the DOJ said that murder charges were filed against 17 police officers for the death of two of the victims, fisherfolk Ariel and Chai Evangelista. In the six-page complaint filed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the cops that carried out a search warrant on the Evangelistas had a “deliberate intent to kill”.
They also added that a special investigation team was ordered during December to file the appropriate complaint over the killing of Melvin Dagsinao, while the preliminary investigation for Manny Asuncion is in the process of being transferred to their main office under the Office of the Prosecutor General.
The denial of justice time and again all the more proves that the government has blatantly weaponized the legal system. It is in these systematic delays in solving state killings that the culture of impunity continues to succeed. Southern Tagalog’s calls for accountability is not a bad effect of freedom: it comes with it. [P]