Karapatan, RMP, and Gabriela seek legal protection vs threats, vilification at the Supreme Court

On May 6, 2019, Karapatan, together with Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) and Gabriela, with the assistance from lawyers of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), filed petition at the Supreme Court to seek legal protection from threats to life, liberty and security, amid accusations of being fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Their petition for the writs of amparo and habeas data also sought for the disclosure and destruction of all files or record on the petitioners gathered by the respondents.  
“Our filing of the petition for the writs of amparo and habeas data is a response to the worsening attacks, terrorist-tagging by the Philippine military and the ongoing smear campaign against human rights defenders. Human rights advocacy is not a crime, yet human rights workers are being killed, threatened, harassed, and jailed on trumped up charges. We have never taken all these attacks sitting down, as we continue to work to confront this perilous political climate with all available remedies,” said Karapatan National Chairperson Elisa Tita Lubi.

Karapatan underscored that the dangerous rhetoric of the military, President Duterte, and his officials labeling the organization as a CPP-NPA front has resulted to glaringly numerous killings and other human rights violations against its human rights workers. “Moreover, the red tagging and labeling which emanated from the national task force to end local communist insurgency further aggravated the threats against the life, liberty and security of the petitioners because it is an expression of a government policy directed against legitimate civil society organizations, activist and human rights defenders in this case,” according to the petitioners.

The organization cited the killings of its human rights workers and paralegals, including Karapatan Southern Mindanao Deputy Secretary General Benjaline Hernandez in April 2002, Karapatan Southern Tagalog Secretary General Eden Marcellana in April 2003, Karapatan Negros Oriental coordinator Elisa Badayos who was killed while leading a fact finding mission in November 2017, Kawagib rights worker Mariam Uy Acob who received threats from the military before she was killed in October 2018, and Escalante City councilor Bernardino “Toto” Patigas of Negros Occidental who was recently killed on April 23. Patigas, a long-time human rights advocate and a survivor of the Escalante massacre, was included in a poster of CPP-NPA sympathizers allegedly disseminated by the police. A few hours after Patigas was killed, Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay and Clarizza Singson of Karapatan Negros received death threats through text messages. 

“From 2001 to 2019, at least 48 human rights defenders of Karapatan have been killed by State forces. Most, if not all, of our human rights workers, even our former colleagues, are subjected to threats, surveillance, harassment, red-tagging, and judicial harassment. We have been publicly vilified even in online spaces, and we frequently receive death threats through text messages. Our chairperson was included in a malicious petition proscribing the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization. These attacks can only come from those who see our work and advocacy for people’s rights, our monitoring and documentation of human rights violations, our direct assistance to victims and kin, and our provision of platforms for human rights education as threats to the current status quo. Human rights defense and activism is not a crime; it is a right protected by international covenants and agreements as well as the Philippine Constitution,” said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay.  

The petition also cited incidents of red-tagging perpetrated by President Rodrigo Duterte himself, in six recorded and live telecast speeches, wherein Duterte maliciously tagged Karapatan as a “communist front.” In response to Karapatan’s allegation letter on these incidents, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, and Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism Fionnuala Ni Aolain sent a communication to the Philippine Government on April 23, 2018, which read in part as follows:

Concern is expressed over the repeated, threatening and vilifying statements made by President Duterte, targeted at KARAPATAN, ostensibly due to the organisation’s continued work in the defence of human rights. Further concern is expressed over the impression that such alleged statements, which distort the public narrative on human rights defenders and conflate their work with threats to national security, may have on the public and civil society, especially when delivered by the Head of State. In particular, we are concerned that the President’s comments foster an intolerance and hostility which, considering his influence as a political leader, may lead to persons being incited to exercise violence against KARAPATAN and its members, who are already facing a severely hostile environment. We are concerned that such speech by the President undermines not only the work of civil society, but also the faith of civil society in State institutions and, thus, the quality and level of their participation in democracy.

Despite these views previously expressed by UN independent experts, Duterte and his officials continued their vilification of Karapatan. Among the recent incidents mentioned in the petition is the government junket by members of the national task force (NTF) to end local communist and armed conflict, which includes military officials who made rounds in diplomatic missions in the European Union to red-tag Karapatan, Ibon International, RMP, and even community schools in Mindanao. Belgian NGO partners of the AFP-targeted organizations spoke out in defense of Karapatan and their Philippine partners, attesting to the years of work and human rights advocacy of the rights groups under attack. 

Respondents to the said petition are President Rodrigo Duterte, Gen. (Ret.) Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Delfin Lorenzana, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., Brig. Gen. Fernando Trinidad, Maj. Gen. Erwin Bernard Neri, Lt. Gen. Macairog Alberto, Maj. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., Alex Paul Monteagudo, Vicente Agdamag, Senior Supt. Omega Jireh Fidel, and Undersecretaries Joel Sy Egco, Severo Catura and Lorraine Marie Badoy. 

Members of Karapatan’s National Executive Committee and National Council filed the petition on behalf of the alliance, which includes Lubi, Palabay, Karapatan National Vice Chairperson Reylan Vergara, Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor, Treasurer Kiri Dalena, and NC members Dr. Edita Burgos, Fr. Wilfredo Ruazol, and Jose Mari Callueng.  

“We are appealing to the Supreme Court to see the merit of our petition, the dangers of our work, and eventually decide in favor of human rights defenders who have courageously stood alongside marginalized sectors in the country. We call on the Supreme Court to recognize that our work and activism involves the full exercise of our civil and political rights, and is in no way tantamount to a crime,” Palabay ended.