CIVICUS speaks with the chairperson of human rights group Karapatan, Elisa ‘Tita’ Lubi, who currently faces fabricated charges of attempted murder. She was accused alongside Karapatan Southern Mindanao Region’s Secretary General Jayvee Apia for allegedly committing these crimes during an armed encounter between members of the armed opposition group New People’s Army and the military in May 2018. The case was only filed in June 2020, two years after the alleged encounter.
Karapatan is a national alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists working to promote and protect human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatan has 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. Karapatan staff and members have been vilified by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte for their activism and have repeatedly faced trumped up charges.
What is your background and experience as an activist?
After martial law was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, I decided not only to support the student activists but to spend part of my time, which used to be totally consumed by the corporate world, helping and learning about real life from farmers and fisherfolk. After my third arrest and detention, I became active in the women’s movement since it was Gabriela, a national alliance of women’s organisations, which successfully campaigned in the Philippines and internationally for my release. I also used what skills I had developed, as a young human resources management and development manager in a US corporation and a multinational conglomerate, to design and pioneer a Basic NGO Management Course to help non-government and people’s organisations better run their projects, programmes and operations.
Eventually I became active in Selda, an organisation of former political detainees, and helped in the formation of Karapatan. I became the Founding Vice Chairperson of the Gabriela Women’s Party, which won in the party list elections in its first try. It was then one of the only two women’s political parties in the world.
So as an activist, I worked in the people’s movement, the women’s movement, the struggle for human rights and in the electoral arena. Eventually, I started focusing more on the defence and advancement of human and people’s rights, with specific attention to the plight of political prisoners and campaigning for their release, having been one myself. I was arrested and detained twice under Marcos’s martial law and once under the Corazon Aquino presidency (1986-1992).
I am now the National Chairperson of Karapatan, an alliance of organisations and individuals advocating and fighting for human and people’s rights. Its major responsibilities include monitoring and reporting of the overall human rights situation in the Philippines, so since 2007 we have regularly published a Year-End Report on the human rights situation in the country.
We have documented and reported cases of violations of human and people’s rights in our quarterly human rights Monitor. We also coordinate the Quick Reaction Team machinery composed of paralegals from affected regions and sectors, human rights lawyers, medical professionals when needed and volunteer human rights advocates; such teams immediately verify the report of a rights violation, search for the victims in military camps, detention centres and police stations, get in touch with the victim’s family and visit and investigate the scene of a violation.
We also expose cases, especially the grossest ones, of human rights violations nationally and internationally through newspapers, radio, television and social media. We aim to engender widespread protest and strengthen political pressure on the Filipino government to prevent further human rights violations. We oppose and campaign against repressive laws, bills, directives, government policies and programmes that imperil political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. We are part of the Free Political Prisoners campaign and we gather political and material support for them.
Finally, we help in the provision of legal and medical services to political detainees, support their struggle for prison reform and help them meet their daily basic needs, which are not sufficiently provided by prison administrations, and initiate or join fact-finding and solidarity missions to document and assist victims and their families.
What harassment have you have faced over the years?
It is a long story of harassment, arrest, detention and ‘red tagging’ – a practice where people are slurred as communists and terrorists. Since 2016, when President Duterte took power, the government has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including the killing of human rights defenders. The government’s anti-insurgency campaign has failed to distinguish between armed combatants and civilians and there have been harassment and attacks against activists who are singled out and accused of supporting the communist insurgency. In my first arrest during Marcos’s martial law years, two of my companions, student activists from the state university, were shot dead.
Under the post-Marcos administration of President Aquino, some changes occurred but they were superficial and not at all the fundamental changes we were working for. I was once more arrested for violating the Anti-Subversion Law and was incarcerated first in a police station and then transferred to a city jail. But before that, I was sexually molested while undergoing tactical interrogation. I was released after more than six months when the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. By the way, the 100-plus city jail women detainees elected me Mayora, some sort of president of the detained.
Then came President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who invoked a national emergency. In 2006, a rebellion case was slapped on six progressive party-list representatives sitting in the Philippines Congress and about 40 other critics of the government. The legislators became known as the Batasan Six; I was one of the other 40. The case was later dismissed by the Supreme Court, with the following admonition: “(We) cannot emphasise too strongly that prosecutors should not allow and should avoid giving the impression that their noble office is being used or prostituted, wittingly or unwittingly, for political ends.”
What have you and Karapatan been accused of more recently, under the Duterte administration?
In 2018, a petition was filed by the Justice Department for the proscription as terrorist organisations of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), which have led a longstanding national liberation movement in the Philippines. Appended to the petition was a list of more than 650 names that included those of social activists, human rights defenders, peace advocates and other government critics. My lawyer and I filed a motion to have my name stricken off the petition. Pushed by the strong protest against the clear military move to silence dissent and the freedom of expression, the government submitted an amended petition that dropped the list of names, retaining only two.
As a reaction to the unrelenting work of Karapatan to defend rights and expose the dismal human rights record of the Duterte government, not only in the country but also in the international community, including in the United Nations (UN), Karapatan has been subjected to constant and vicious harassment, intimidation, red-tagging, demonisation and vilification.
To protect itself, Karapatan filed a petition for legal protection under the privilege of the writ of amparo and habeas data, along with two other organisations, Gabriela and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. In retaliation, Duterte’s National Security Adviser charged officers of the three organisations with perjury. The leaders of these organisations, including me as Karapatan’s chairperson, are all on provisional liberty after posting bail. Hearings on the case are proceeding during the pandemic.
The latest in the series of attempts at political repression against us is the filing of an attempted murder charge against my colleague Jay Apiag, me and three others. Two years after the supposed incident, a soldier of the Philippines Army allegedly identified us as part of an NPA unit that staged an ambush. On 29 March 2021, my lawyers and I filed an urgent omnibus motion for reinvestigation and to defer implementation of the warrant of arrest. It is still pending in court.
I have also shared evidence with the courts confirming my presence in Metro Manila preceding, during and following the alleged incident. In addition, it is also implausible that I was engaged in armed combat as I am 76 and suffer from hypertension and arthritis.
Why do you think the authorities are coming after you and Karapatan?
Those moves are part of the Duterte government and its military and police arms’ efforts at silencing its critics, whom they brand as ‘enemies of the state’. They are part of Duterte’s attempt at building a tyrannical rule patterned after his idol, the dictator Marcos.
Its counter-insurgency operational plan, Oplan Kapanatagan, aims to stem the continuing growth of the liberation movement in the country led by the CPP, the NPA and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The Duterte government, with retired generals appointed to various cabinet positions, cannot understand that unless the basic problems of Filipino society are solved, even step by step, the people’s movement will persist.
What Duterte and his militarist henchmen have done instead is to merge as targets of attacks the armed and underground movements and the open and legal democratic people’s movement. So now, Karapatan and social activists and rights advocates like myself are in the bullseye of Duterte’s guns, so to speak.
What is the overall situation for human rights defenders?
The Philippines is one of the countries where social activists, human rights defenders and peace advocates live most dangerously. Recently, the Supreme Court was forced to issue a statement against attacks on lawyers, as 61 lawyers have been killed under Duterte’s presidency. The Duterte government’s intolerance of criticism was manifested by its red-tagging of film stars and beauty queens, university bodies and even organisers of community food schemes who were simply expressing their views. Six NDFP peace consultants have been summarily executed under Duterte. Four were shot dead, one was stabbed several times and one was garrotted.
Very recently, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) ordered the profiling of the organisers of the Maginhawa Community Pantry, a civil society initiative that solicits donations and distributes foodstuffs under the motto ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Community pantries are mushrooming all over due to the government’s inability to alleviate impoverishment under the pandemic. Many are protesting against the red-tagging of the community pantry organisers, made worse by the NTF-ELCAC spokesperson, a retired military general, who likened the woman initiator of the public initiative to Satan.
What needs to change for the rule of law and human rights to be respected and for democracy to flourish?
First, and in general terms, the Duterte government should stop using the law to break the law. Specifically, it should repeal the Anti-Terrorism Law, which allows the warrantless arrest, prolonged detention and freezing of bank accounts of individuals based on mere suspicion of being terrorists. It should abolish the NTF-ELCAC, which leads inter-agency actions with impunity, including but not limited to extrajudicial killings, massacres, enforced disappearances, simultaneous raids and arrests, filing of trumped-up charges and red-tagging. It has billions in public funds, which could very well be allocated to COVID-19 testing, vaccination and food assistance to families affected by the pandemic.
The police should stop killing suspected drug users and pushers during its anti-drug operations, mostly conducted in urban poor communities. The judiciary should also categorically instruct its prosecutors and judges to desist from filing charges in court and issuing search and arrest warrants with insufficient evidence or with hardly a preliminary investigation. The military and police should be prevented from exerting pressure on or threatening officers of the courts.
The Duterte government should go back to peace negotiations. Headway has been achieved in the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Rights, specifically on agrarian reform and rural development and national industrialisation and economic development. There is a possibility of an Interim Peace Agreement and a coordinated ceasefire. The NDFP is willing to continue peace talks to address the root causes of the armed conflict. It is the Duterte government that is refusing to sit down and talk once more.
Next year, 2022, is a national election year. There should be major electoral reforms to prevent fraud through electronic cheating and the rampant use of ‘guns, goons and gold’ to maintain the corrupt politicians entrenched in power. There should be a stop to political dynasties, including that of President Duterte, whose daughter is mayor of Davao City and is perceived to have started campaigning for the presidency in 2022 despite continued denial. One Duterte son is a congressman, while another is a vice mayor. Electoral reforms and people’s action should ensure that the candidates with the people’s interests at heart get a fighting chance and those whom the people vote for actually win.
What can the international community and CSOs do to support you and other activists facing judicial harassment?
One way is to join and support the Stop the Killings in the Philippines international campaign. Another is to join and support the international campaign to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Still another is to support advocacy with the UN Human Rights Council and UN Special Procedures being undertaken by Philippine human rights defenders and peace advocates to address the real situation of human and people’s rights and the implementation of international humanitarian law in the Philippines.
And finally, the international community and CSOs can push for and support the resumption of peace talks between the government and the NDFP, and urge the government to stop the attacks on NDFP peace consultants and honour whatever peace agreement has been reached between the government and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao.