Hon. Menardo Guevarra
Secretary, Department of Justice
Padre Faura St., Ermita, Manila,
Dear Secretary Guevarra,
RE: Halt judicial harassment and investigate killing of activists in the Philippines
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. Founded in 1993, CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries throughout the world.
We are writing to you with regards to recent reports we have received on the judicial harassment of human rights defenders in the Philippines as well as allegations of extrajudicial killings of activists. We are concerned that harassment and attacks continue to be perpetrated against those who are “red-tagged” and accused of supporting the communist insurgency. The government’s anti- insurgency campaign has failed to distinguish between armed combatants and civilians, including human rights defenders. As a consequence, many groups and individuals have been targeted simply because of their critical views of the government. We set out our concerns in more details below.
Fabricated charges filed against human rights defenders
The chairperson of human rights group Karapatan Elisa “Tita” Lubi and Karapatan – Southern Mindanao Southern Mindanao Region Secretary General Jayvee Apiag are currently facing attempted murder charges which we believe have been fabricated. The charges were filed by Corporal Elvin Jay Claud in relation to an alleged 20 May 2018 armed encounter between elements of the New People’s Army and the Philippine Army’s 89th Infantry Battalion and 10th Infantry Division in Sitio Balite, Brgy. Salapawan, Paquibato District, Davao City. The case was only filed on 3 June 2020 — two years after the alleged encounter.
Jayvee Apiag has testified that at the time of the incident he was at Barangay Madaum, in Tagum City, to conduct a fact-finding mission on the extrajudicial murder of Ariel Maquiran, a banana plantation worker. Elisa “Tita” Lubi, has also shared evidence with the courts confirming her presence in Metro Manila preceding, during and following the alleged incident. In addition to exculpatory evidence, it is also implausible that Lubi was engaged in armed combat as she is 76 and is suffering from hypertension and arthritis. We are also seriously concerned that Lubi and Apiag were also deprived of due process: they did not receive subpoenas to participate in the preliminary investigation of the case to assert their innocence and avail of appropriate remedies for the case’s dismissal.
In a separate incident, on the morning of 21 March 2021, Karapatan human rights worker, Renalyn Tejero was detained after a raid on her apartment in Cagayan de Oro City by the Philippine National Police and Philippine Army. She was shown a warrant and was only able to read the words “homicide” and “RTC 34, Cabadbaran.” She was also interrogated without a lawyer, despite requesting one. Tejero is now facing murder and attempted murder charges which we believe to be fabricated. She has been accused by four soldiers of the 12th Scout Ranger Company of the 4th Scout Ranger Battalion of the Philippine Army in the alleged murder of Corporal Marion Suson, in an encounter with supposed New People’s Army members on 9 November 2019. Renalyn Tejero is currently being held at the Police Regional Office (PRO) 13’s headquarters at Camp Colonel Rafael Rodriguez in Butuan City. Previously, in November 2020, she was red-tagged by a group named "Movement against Terrorism," along with 32 other individuals from various progressive organizations in the Caraga region.
CIVICUS believes these trumped-up charges are a clear form of reprisal on the human rights defenders’ efforts to hold government officials including President Rodrigo Duterte accountable.
Killing of nine human rights defenders and political activists
On 7 March 2021, police and military conducted raids across four provinces throughout the Southern Tagalog region that led to the killing of nine human rights defenders and political activists.
- Ariel Evangelista was a human rights defender and leader of the progressive group for fisherfolk, People’s Solidarity Against Environmental and Land Destruction, UMALPAS KA) a community organization that monitors the impact of eco-tourism projects in Batangas. His partner, Anna Mariz Lemita-Evangelista, was a staunch supporter of coastal protection in Batangas, and an educator and community organizer in Cavite. Police shot dead both human rights defenders during a raid on their house in Barangay Calayo, Nasugbu, Batangas.
- Emmanuel Asuncion, a labour organizer and the coordinator of the Cavite chapter of BAYAN, a left-wing group, was shot dead by policemen in the office of the Workers' Assistance Center (WAC) in Dasmariñas in Dasmariñas, Cavite.
- Melvin Dasigao and Mark Bacasno were human rights defenders, youth organisers, and members of SIKKAD K3, a group working for the rights of the urban poor, who were killed in Rodriguez.
- Puroy Dela Cruz and Randy Dela Cruz of the indigenous Dumagat tribe were shot dead by the police in Sitio Mina, Barangay Sta. Inez, Tanay, Rizal.
- Urban poor activists Abner Esto and Edward Esto were killed by the police in sitio Macaingalan, Barangay Puray, Rodriguez, Rizal.
Six others have been arrested: labour activists Esteban Mendoza, Elizabeth Camoral, Ramir Corcolon, Arnedo “Nedo” Lagunias and Eugene Eugenio; and human rights worker Nimfa Lanzanas. The raids were reportedly conducted as part of the joint operations of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Army under Case Operation Plan ASVAL against individuals and organizations that they have red-tagged as members or fronts of “communist terrorist groups.” On 5 March 2021, two days before the raids, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the police and military to “kill” and “finish off” all communist rebels should they find themselves in an armed encounter, and to “forget human rights” in the process.
Security forces claimed that the nine killed during the raids resisted arrest or exchanged gunfire, and that firearms and explosives were recovered from those arrested. Testimonies from their families, witnesses, and neighbors disprove these claims, asserting that they were unlawfully killed and the firearms and explosives recovered from the raids were planted. No one has been held accountable for their killings.
In a separate incident on 28 March, Dandy Miguel, a union leader and labour rights activist, was killed in the province of Laguna. He was gunned down by a still unidentified man while riding his motorcycle in Barangay Canlubang. Miguel, 35, was the vice chairperson of Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan (PAMANTIK-KMU), a labour rights center based in Southern Tagalog.
International human rights obligations
The Philippines government has made repeated assurances to other states that it will investigate and address human rights violations. Indeed, such assurances have been used to deter further international scrutiny on the country. However, the charges brought against Elisa “Tita” Lubi, Jayvee Apiag and Renalyn Tejero highlight that an ongoing and unchanging pattern of the government targeting human rights defenders with trumped-up charges. Extrajudicial murders of human rights defenders with a complete lack of accountability brings into even starker question the Philippines’ intention and ability to uphold its commitments.
These actions are also inconsistent with Philippines’ international human rights obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Philippines ratified in 1986. These include obligations to respect and protect fundamental freedoms which are also guaranteed in the Philippines Constitution. The Philippines government has an obligation to protect human rights defenders as provided for in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and to prevent any reprisals against them for their activism.
The killings of the of the nine activists reflect findings from human rights groups as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ June 2020 report that there have been widespread and systematic human rights violations by the government, including the killing of human rights defenders, since 2016 when President Duterte took power. These violations are in contravention of the right to life guaranteed under the ICCPR. Further, these actions contravene the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials which states that force should be used only as a last resort, in proportion to the threat posed, and should be designed to minimise damage or injury.
Therefore, we call on the Philippines authorities to:
- Immediately dismiss the malicious and fabricated charges against Elisa “Tita” Lubi, Jayvee Apiag and Renalyn Tejero and release all other human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their activism;
- Ensure prompt, thorough, and effective investigations into the reports of unlawful killings of the ten activists, and ensure that those suspected of involvement are brought to justice;
- Send a clear public message to all security forces in the region, that unlawful killings are unacceptable and strictly prohibited at all times; and
- Halt all forms of intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders, ensure independent and effective investigations into their killings and enact of a law for their protection.
Advocacy and Campaigns Lead,
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
 ‘Rights workers challenge arrest warrants in Davao court’, Bulatlat, 30 March 2021, https://www.bulatlat.com/2021/03/30/rights-workers-challenge-arrest-warrants-in-davao-court/
 ‘Rights group urge court to reinvestigate murder charges on chairperson and regional officer’, Davao Today, 31 March 2021, http://davaotoday.com/main/human-rights/rights-group-urge-court-to-reinvestigate-murder-charges-on-chairperson-and-regional-officer/
 Urgent appeal for action to dismiss trumped up and malicious charges against Filipino human rights defenders’ Karapatan, 1 April 2021, https://www.karapatan.org/urgent+appeal+for+action+to+dismiss+trumped+up+and+malicious+charges+against+filipino+human+rights+defenders
 ‘Fast Facts: Who is Renalyn Tejero, the Lumad activist arrested in Cagayan de Oro?’, Rappler, 24 March 20201, https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/things-to-know-renalyn-tejero-lumad-activist
 Ariel Evangelista and 4 Other HRDs killed and four arrests in coordinated raids by police and military’, Frontline Defenders, 12 March 2021, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/ariel-evangelista-4-other-hrds-killed-and-four-arrested-coordinated-raids-police-and-military
 ‘Chai Lemita-Evangelista, youth leader and community organizer’, Bulatlat, 16 March 2021, https://www.bulatlat.com/2021/03/16/chai-lemita-evangelista-youth-leader-and-community-organizer/
 ‘Bloody Sunday 'chase'? Cops search home, kill activist in another town’, Rappler, 8 March 2021, https://www.rappler.com/nation/police-search-home-kill-activist-another-town-cavite
 Melvin Dasigao, Frontline Defenders, 8 March 2021, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/melvin-dasigao
 Mark Bacasno, Frontline Defenders, 8 March 2021, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/mark-lee-coros-bacasno
 ‘4 other victims of #BloodySunday killings identified’, Philippines Reporter, 12 March 2021, https://philippinereporter.com/index.php/2021/03/12/4-other-victims-of-bloodysunday-killings-identified/
 ‘Philippine police kill 9 in raids on suspected rebels’, Associate Press, 8 March 2021, https://apnews.com/article/philippines-police-manila-718cd406f3fad454c6a72e873b4aef45
 ‘Labor rights leader shot dead in Laguna’, 29 March 2021, Rappler, https://www.rappler.com/nation/labor-rights-leader-dandy-miguel-killed-laguna-march-28-2021
 ‘Philippines: UN report details widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity’, OHCHR, 4 June 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25924&LangID=E
The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Philippines as Repressed.