They are usually the first to respond to cases of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances in the Philippines. In a country where impunity prevails, these human-rights defenders have not been spared from the same atrocities that they are trying to stop.

By RONALYN V. OLEA, Bulatlat.com – http://www.bulatlat.com/main/2009/09/04/in-philippines-human-rights-advocates-live-dangerously/

4 September 2009

MANILA — In his seven years of involvement in human-rights advocacy, Fred Caña knows very well the risks it entails in a country where impunity prevails.

Caña is the secretary-general of Karapatan-Negros. Like any other human-rights worker, Caña’s tasks include documenting cases of human-rights violations, helping out the victims, survivors and their families seek justice and demanding accountability from perpetrators. For all these, the usual suspects for human-rights abuses have subjected Caña to surveillance, red baiting and different forms of harassment.

“I have long accepted the possibility of getting killed because of this work,” he told Bulatlat, pointing out that many of his colleagues in Karapatan have been victims of extrajudicial killings the past several years.

Caña is no different from other human-rights workers in the field. Karapatan’s newly elected national secretary-general Lovella de Castro told Bulatlat that there has been a systematic attack on Karapatan as an organization and on its individual leaders and volunteers especially in the wake of the heightened campaign against state fascism.

Although based in Bacolod City, Caña would usually go to communities where violations are committed. During the campaign against intensified military operations in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, soldiers of the 11th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army burned down an effigy of Caña, declaring him as persona non grata.

The soldiers had been encamping inside the barangay (village) halls of Guihulngan, sowing terror on the local residents. In Barangay Linantuyan, the soldiers have set up the so-called Barangay Defense System (BDS), “mobilizing” the residents against the insurgents.

In one of the rallies organized by the local peasant group Kaugmaon in July 2008, soldiers from the 11th IB harassed the protesters and publicly labeled Caña as a spokesman of the New People’s Army (NPA). The NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), has been waging a Maoist revolution for four decades now.

It has also been a habit of the military to label Caña as a communist in a military-run radio program in Bacolod City.

Caña knows that he has been under surveillance but still, he never expected the military to visit his mother in their hometown in Sipalay, 180 kilometers from Bacolod City. The soldiers asked for his whereabouts and told his mother: “Your son is in the hills fighting with the NPA.”

There were moments when Caña thought he would be killed. Sometime in December 2006, Caña and his wife Tess were riding a tricycle on their way home when a man took the back seat and ominously showed his 45-caliber pistol to the couple. At another time, when the couple was buying rice from a store, a man sat in front of Caña and showed him his gun. Another buyer came, prompting the armed man to leave the store.

Two weeks after the incident, the then commander of the 61st IB, Colonel Leodivic Guinid, approached Caña and invited him for a “small talk.” Caña quoted Guinid as telling him: “Fred, you are still young. Why don’t you leave your work and start anew?” Caña, who is 44 years old, said Guinid went on to lecture him against communism.

Even Lawyers Are Harassed

Even human-rights lawyers are not spared from attacks. Kathrina Castillo, former secretary-general of Katungod-Sinirangang Bisaya, a regional human-rights alliance in Eastern Visayas, received unusual invitations from the military, particularly from the 8th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army based in Catbalogan, Samar.

On Feb. 9, Castillo received an invitation from Lt. Col. Roldan A. Radaza of the 8th ID to be their guest of honor and speaker in the military’s awarding ceremony the following week. Castillo did not attend but sent an open letter to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In her letter, Castillo cited numerous cases of human-rights violations in the region perpetrated by state security forces, including three massacres.

In his response, Maj. Gen. Arthur Tabaquero claimed that Castillo has become the “unwitting victim” of the CPP/NPA’s deception and lies.

“Based on CPP/NPA documents in our possession, it is stated that a major part of their strategy is to mobilize their mass base supporters to file cases against the military whether the case is factual, fictitious or imaginary in order to derail the conduct of military tactical and civil-military operations in guerilla zones and bases,” Tabaquero said.

Through the military-run local radio program in Catbalogan, Col. Armand Rico, spokesman of the 8th ID, repeatedly labeled Castillo as the lawyer of the NPA and of National Democratic Front-Eastern Visayas spokesman Fr. Santiago Salas.

According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (Codal), from 2001 to 2008, there were 15 lawyers and two lawyers’ groups who have either been told that they are included in the military’s order of battle (OB) or have been openly accused of being communist rebels. Two of the 15 lawyers have already been killed — Norman Bocar, who was gunned down on Sept. 1, 2005, in Borongan, Eastern Samar, and Juvy Magsino, shot dead on Feb. 13, 2004 in Naujan, Mindoro Oriental.

Happens Nationwide

The attacks on Karapatan and its volunteers take on many forms. In fact, 34 Karapatan members have already been killed from 2001 to present.

Harassments of fact-finding missions are usual. Karapatan’s de Castro said soldiers would block their teams, terrorize the victims or deliberately conceal evidence of rights abuses. In some cases, Karapatan volunteers are denied access to communities where heavy military operations are ongoing, preventing them from documenting cases of violations.

Human-rights workers, too, have been slapped with fabricated criminal charges, such as those in Cebu, Southern Tagalog, Negros and Southern Mindanao Region.

“The military has been trying to discredit the organization and our members and has been harassing us in the field,” de Castro told Bulatlat.

Offices of Karapatan chapters in Pampanga, Tarlac, Cagayan Valley and Cordillera were raided in separate incidents, de Castro said.

Stronger

Amid all these, de Castro said Karapatan has come out stronger. She said that Karapatan chapters in the provinces persevered in the campaign for human rights.

Security precautions are observed as a way of coping with the dangers of their work. Flor Chantal Eco, secretary-general of Katungod-SB, said that to avoid surveillance, they refrain from having fixed patterns and fixed points in their daily activities.

In Central Visayas, human-rights teams are deployed in militarized areas to document cases of violations. “I call them the ‘suicide force’ because they are willing to take on the risks that go with human rights work,” de Castro said.

De Castro believes that the formation of Hustisya!, an organization of families of victims of extrajudicial killings, is the biggest gain of Karapatan as far as advocacy is concerned. “The consolidation of victims is an added voice calling for justice,” she said.

For Caña, offense is the best defense. “We assert our rights and rely on mass actions and alliance work.” (Bulatlat.com)