Philippine human rights office probes ‘anomalous arrests’ of dissidents


The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said on Sunday the police should address the “anomalous arrests” of seven leftist activists last week, especially after no less than the president pledged to the United Nations that he would uphold human rights as part of his agenda.

Jacqueline de Guia, spokesperson for the CHR, said in a statement that “it would be then for the government’s benefit, particularly the Philippine National Police, to address these doubts and allegations of anomalous arrests”.

Six members of the group Defend Jobs Philippines including Dennise Velasco, Rodrigo Esparago, Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz, Joel Demate and Jaymie Gregorio as well as Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem were apprehended in police operations.

The seven were arrested in early morning raids on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 and were all charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

De Guia lauded the president’s human right pledge but said the commitments “need to be translated to actual reforms, including effectiveness of redress mechanisms in addressing similar allegations and different human rights violations.”

“If these pledges will remain as words, then we would not only fail the human rights cause, but this would also render hollow the government’s primary assertions that it will abide by its obligation to uphold the rights of all,” de Guia said.

De Guia noted that elderly leftist leaders Agaton Topacio and Eugenia Magpantay, both peace consultants to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), were killed in their house in Angono, Rizal, on Nov. 25 in a supposed shootout with the police when they were served warrants for illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

But the lawyers of the union organizers disputed the legality of the arrests and accused the police of planting evidence against them.

In Velasco and Salem’s cases, the raiding team asked them to lie face down on the floor or face the wall for almost an hour while their homes were searched by the police.

Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said illegal possession of firearms and explosives have become the go-to charges of police against political dissidents because search warrants could be procured by simply going through court motions.

“It is easy to plant this materiel, whose possession are monopolized by the police and military, especially if done at dawn or night and when the arrested persons are first segregated, controlled or neutralized and have no chance to prevent or witness such anomaly,” he added.

Because possession of explosives is normally a non-bailable offence, suspects thus “rot in jail and need to go through a rigorous process over time to prove that the evidence of your guilt is not strong for you to avail of bail if you are lucky,” Olalia said.

Under the law, both the subjects of a search warrant and witnesses must be present during its service to ensure regularity, according to the activists’ lawyer Kristina Conti.

Meanwhile the spokesperson for the PNP and former chief of the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office, Brig. Gen. Ildebrandi Usana declined to comment on the matter and said Gen. Debold Sinas, the PNP chief, may want to respond himself during his regular media briefing on Monday.