URGENT APPEAL FOR ACTION
Release Amanda Echanis with her month-old child!
Free the Human Rights Day 7!
Stop the crackdown against human rights defenders in the Philippines!

Dear friends,

The Duterte administration has intensified its attacks against Filipinos who firmly stand in defense of people’s rights. The government’s all-out crackdown against dissent has led to the illegal arrests of hundreds of activists, including Amanda Echanis and the seven who were arrested while the world marked International Human Rights Day last year, namely journalist Lady Ann Salem, and trade unionists Dennise Velasco, Joel Demate, Rodrigo Esparago, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, and Jaymie Gregorio, collectively known as Human Rights Day 7.

Today, as they remain in prison on the basis of fabricated cases against them, we ask you to stand with us in calling for their immediate release and against the worsening attacks against human rights defenders in the Philippines.

The imprisonment of Echanis and the Human Rights Day 7 reveals the Duterte administration’s glaring practice of persecuting individuals who speak against government’s abuses and injustices. Just like the way previous raids against the offices of people’s organizations and houses of human rights activists were conducted in the past four years of the Duterte administration, State forces forcibly entered the homes and offices of the arrested defenders at dawn.

On December 2, 2020, days before the commemoration of the International Human Rights Day, the police and the military in Cagayan province arrested Echanis, after forcibly entering the dwelling where she was staying with her infant.

Echanis, daughter of slain former Anakpawis chairperson and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultant Randall Echanis, serves as an organizer for peasant groups Amihan and Anakpawis in the Cagayan Valley region. Committed and dedicated to her work, she helped peasants in their struggle for land and justice.

In Metro Manila, as thousands geared for a protest rally to mark International Human Rights Day and to assert the call for the release of political prisoners in the country, the police arrested Salem, Velasco, Demate, Esparago, Cruz, Astudillo, and Gregorio in a string of operations led by the Philippine National Police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) through five search warrants issued by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of the Regional Trial Court Branch 89 in Quezon City.

Salem serves as the editor of the alternative online news site Manila Today. She was arrested with Esparago, a labor organizer, in a unit that serves as a multi-purpose office for the online news website in Mandaluyong City. Meanwhile, labor organizers Velasco, Demate, Cruz, Astudillo, and Gregorio were arrested in their homes in Quezon City and Manila.

Burgos-Villavert is the same judge who issued search warrants that resulted in the arrests of 56 individuals in police raids in Bacolod and five others in Manila in 2019, including political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino, who gave birth to and lost her three-month old daughter while she was imprisoned.

The arrests of Echanis with her infant child and of the Human Rights Day 7 clearly show that, even without a formal declaration of Marcosian martial law, the Duterte government is launching a massive campaign of repression and vilification against human rights activists through highly questionable and baseless searches and arrests by the military and the police.

Human rights defenders red-tagged by the State security forces as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), New People’s Army (NPA) or the NDFP are being mercilessly killed or end up in prison over fabricated charges. It is a concern that Karapatan has repeatedly raised — that the policy and practice of red-tagging puts people’s lives, security, and liberties at grave risk.

The string of arrests came after the regime’s security sector and alleged former rebels receiving monetary compensation and benefits from the government falsely claimed during a Senate committee hearing on red-tagging that progressive individuals and groups serve as the so-called “legal fronts” of the CPP-NPA.

The arrests clearly manifest the rapidly deteriorating crisis of political repression and criminalization of dissent in the Philippines. The Duterte government continues to weaponize the law and various legal machinations to achieve its end goal: the silencing of its critics, and to promote and perpetuate a form of governance that violates people’s rights and is intolerant of any form of dissent. The persecution against dissenters is orchestrated through its various policies, especially Executive Order No. 70 which created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, counterinsurgency Operational Plan Kapanatagan and the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act, a broadly-opposed legislation that has been widely criticized and condemned as a draconian measure that will dangerously infringe on Filipinos’ hard-won rights and freedoms.

We call on all our allies, communities, and fellow human rights advocates to call on the immediate and unconditional release of Echanis, the Human Rights Day 7, and all political prisoners in the country. We enjoin everyone to release statements of support for those arrested and encourage our networks to pursue independent investigations on the human rights situation and the crackdown on human rights defenders in the Philippines.

ACCOUNTS OF THE INCIDENTS:

Amanda Echanis: It was dawn last December 2, 2020, between 3 to 3:30 a.m., when an estimated 30 State forces from the PNP and the 77th and 17th Infantry Battalions of the Philippine Army barged inside the house of Josephine Bumanglag who, at that time, was sleeping together with her grandchildren, Echanis and her then nearly month-old child in Barangay Carupian in Baggao, Cagayan.

Those inside the house saw the police and military officers in full battle gear while carrying high-powered rifles. Bumanglag’s grandchildren, all minors, started crying, while the soldiers and police entered the room where Echanis and her infant were staying. The room was dark, but the police and soldiers who entered the room started to ask Echanis several questions while she was breastfeeding her one month old child. It was only at 7 a.m. when the barangay officials arrived and the so-called search was conducted, as the police report claimed that they have recovered firearms, ammunition, and explosives from the house — the same claim being used by the government to arrest targeted activists to persecute them for speaking against the abuses of the regime.

An hour later, Echanis was brought to Camp Adduru in Tuguegarao City. At present, Echanis is detained at the Cagayan Provincial Jail, together with her baby, as she continues to assert her innocence on the charges against her. At the time of her arrest, she was an organizer of women peasants in Cagayan Valley. Previously, she served as executive director of an urban poor NGO based in Metro Manila. Echanis is likewise a cultural worker, having penned scripts of plays and video productions depicting the plight of the urban poor, workers and peasants. She studied at the Philippine High School for the Arts and at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. She was the youngest political prisoner in the Philippines from 1990, when she was two years old, to 1992, when her parents, both activists, were arrested and detained.

Lady Ann Salem and Rodrigo Esparago: At around 2 a.m. last December 10, 2020, Salem and Esparago were sleeping inside a bedroom in a condominium unit in Mandaluyong City, one of the multi-purpose offices of online news website Manila Today, when Salem was awakened by a series of knocks. When the door was opened, armed men barged in and forced her to kneel facing the windows with her wrists tied. Esparago was manhandled from the bedroom to the place where Salem knelt. They heard the men roaming around while opening things inside the unit. Salem insisted to call her family and her lawyer, but to no avail. After an hour, the armed men, identified as police officers, conducted a “search” and showed the two a copy of the search warrant. During the search, the police allegedly found firearms, explosives, and other items. Salem insisted that those were planted.

At 5 a.m., they were brought to the Eastern District Field Unit of the PNP-CIDG. Salem repeatedly asked that she be allowed to call her family and her lawyer, but her requests were denied. By mid-afternoon, they were taken to Camp Crame in Quezon City where they saw three other labor organizers arrested. They had no time to talk, but all of them reiterated that they want to call their relatives and lawyers. The scenario pushed police officers to bring Salem and Esparago inside a vehicle. By accident, Salem’s sister saw her inside, but Salem was immediately transferred to another vehicle and was brought to a Pasig police station then proceeded to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.

The following day, before their inquest, Salem and Esparago were only given 15 minutes to talk to Conti, their lawyer. Last December 15, they were transferred to the PNP-CIDG National Capital Region (NCR) holding area in Camp Crame, and on December 28, to the Mandaluyong City Jail, where they are currently detained.

Salem is the editor-in-chief of online alternative news outlet Manila Today and the communications officer of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. She is also a member of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines. She wrote about stories on the plight of the urban poor and their campaigns for decent housing. She was a student activist at UP Diliman.

Esparago is an organizer of workers belonging to the Sandigan ng Manggagawa ng Quezon City (Association of Workers in Quezon City). He organized workers at hotels and call centers, and provided service to stranded workers, particularly construction workers, during the pandemic. He was a student activist at the University of the East in Caloocan City.

Dennise Velasco: On December 10, at around 2 a.m., at least 30 armed personnel, wearing different uniforms and in plainclothes, from the Quezon City Police District Special Weapons and Tactical Team, PNP Station 4, and PNP-CIDG Quezon City broke through the front door of the house in Quezon City, where trade union organizer Dennise Velasco and his wife, Diane Zapata, live. Velasco went to the terrace to check, but operatives immediately barged in their house.

At least six police went up to the second floor and told the residents, including Dennise and Diane, to come out of their rooms. The male members of the household were instructed to lie face down on the floor and had their hands tied behind their backs with a plastic zip tie while Diane was escorted downstairs to sit on the sofa. Velasco and his companions insisted that a warrant be shown and that they be allowed to call their relatives and lawyers, but the police officers did not reply.

After an hour and a half, the police officers began the “search” where they allegedly found a bag containing ammunition. During the search, the police also took a laptop, a logbook, phones, and a bag. The search ended at around 5:15 a.m. and Velasco was brought to Camp Karingal in Quezon City. Around five men were left in the residence. One of them asked Velasco’s relatives for a plastic bag where they could put the “evidence”. To the relatives’ surprise, the police placed grenades and a pistol. At 6:30 p.m., Velasco was able to talk to Atty. Kristina Conti over the phone while he insisted to have access to his lawyer, he was brought to the Public Attorney’s Office for inquest proceedings. Velasco was subjected to a virtual inquest proceeding without the presence of a lawyer of his choice. He is currently detained at the PNP-CIDG Quezon City detention cell in Camp Karingal.

Velasco is an organizer of Defend Jobs Philippines network, an advocacy group for labor rights issues. He organized among workers in the fast food, communications, transport and manufacturing industries in Metro Manila, and among communities affected by the extrajudicial killings in the Duterte administration’s brutal and bloody war on drugs. At the time of his arrest, he was coordinating relief efforts for communities in Marikina City affected by the typhoons. He was a student activist at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Joel Demate: On December 10, at around 2 a.m., the police arrived in front of the rented house of the Demate’s daughter in Manila. At least 16 personnel in full battle gear were stationed outside the house, accompanied by around 30 operatives wearing police uniform, fatigue uniform, and in plainclothes. The police officers forcibly entered the house, grabbed Demate and handcuffed him, and brought him and his daughter outside the house. The two were not allowed to come in while the police officers were inside. Minutes after, a “search” started and the police allegedly found a hand grenade, a pistol, and other items that did not belong to Demate.

Demate was brought to the Manila Police District Headquarters at around 6 a.m. where he was interrogated by the police. The same day, Demate was subjected to an inquest proceeding without a lawyer of his choice. He remains detained in a cell at the Manila Police District headquarters at United Nations Avenue.

Demate is a founding member and labor organizer of the Solidarity for Labor and Rights Welfare (SOLAR), an organization of labor unions in the cities of Muntinlupa, Taguig, Paranaque, and Pasay. He organized among workers in the shoe industry, supermarket workers, garments industry, workers at the Food Terminal Inc., food manufacturing industry, and workers of a Pepsi Cola factory. In the 1980’s, he was a sales clerk in a shoe industry and he eventually became an organizer and regional secretary of the Young Christian Workers in Metro Manila. He has emphysema, needing appropriate medical care.

Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, and Jaymie Gregorio: On December 10, at around 2 a.m., officers of trade union center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and labor organizers Cruz, Astudillo, and Gregorio were sleeping at the Metro Manila office of KMU in Quezon City when armed police officers forced their entry. The three were pinned down the floor. Astudillo, fearing for their lives, insisted that they do not have any firearms. A few minutes after, a “search” was conducted where police officers allegedly recovered a firearm and a grenade. Afterwards, they asked if they could call their families and lawyers, but the officers denied their requests.

At around 5 a.m., they were brought to the office of the PNP-CIDG NCR in Camp Crame in Quezon City where they were subjected to interrogation. They were held incommunicado for 12 hours. The three sustained multiple scrapes and bruises because of manhandling. The three were presented to a fiscal the following day, December 11, via video conferencing, to undergo inquest proceedings for illegal possession of firearms and illegal possession of explosives. They remain detained at the PNP-CIDG NCR holding cell.

Astudillo is the Deputy Secretary General of the KMU chapter in Metro Manila. She organized among food industry and pier workers. She was a student activist in Trinity University of Asia, serving as the student publication’s editor-in-chief. She was a chairperson of the Metro Manila chapter of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines and a nominee of the Kabataan Party-list, a partylist organization representing the youth in the House of Representatives.

Cruz is a regional council member of the KMU chapter in Metro Manila. He organized among food industry and pier workers, as well as among contractual workers. He was a student activist at the Technological Institute of the Philippines in Manila and was a youth organizer in the city as the chairperson of the Manila chapter of Anakbayan, a youth organization.

Gregorio is a regional council member of the KMU chapter in Metro Manila. He organized among pier workers and urban poor residents in Tondo, Manila, as well as among contractual workers. He was a student activist at the Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez Institute of Science and Technology where he was a member of the Student Christian Movement and the artist group UgatLahi.

We urgently appeal for your support and solidarity by:

1. Writing letters calling for the dismissal of the charges against human rights defenders Amanda Echanis, Lady Ann Salem, Dennise Velasco, Joel Demate, Rodrigo Esparago, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, and Jaymie Gregorio Jr. to the following authorities:

Mr. Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Republic of the Philippines
Fax: +632 742-1641 / 929-3968 / +632 87368621
Email: op@president.gov.ph / pcc@malacanang.gov.ph or send a message through http://president.gov.ph/contact-us/

Hon. Menardo Guevarra, Secretary, Department of Justice of the Philippines
Fax: +632 521-1614 / +632 85262618
Email: communications@doj.gov.ph /mailto:osecmig@gmail.com

Hon. Jose Luis Martin Gascon, Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines
Fax: +632 929 0102
Email: chairgascon.chr@gmail.com

We likewise enjoin you to include a plea for the humanitarian release of Amanda Echanis with her baby and to ensure that the rights of the nursing mother and her child be recognized and respected while they are in prison.

2. Issuing statements of solidarity for the imprisoned defenders to be circulated to the public and media circles, and calling on the Philippine government to:

a. Stop its smear campaigns, through red-tagging and judicial harassment against human rights defenders and their organizations;
b. Dismiss/junk the fabricated charges against aforementioned defenders;
c. Recall Executive Order No. 70, creating a national task force (NTF) to end local communist armed conflict and institutionalizing the so-called whole of nation approach; to stop all activities emanating from this order, including the smear campaigns and judicial harassment against human rights activists;
d. Withdraw its counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapanatagan, which victimizes innocent and unarmed civilians, and human rights defenders; and
e. Adhere to and respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and all major Human Rights instruments that it is a party and signatory.

Publish these on your websites, social media platforms among others.
Please send us a copy of your email to the above-named officials, to our address below:

KARAPATAN Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights
National Office
2/F Erythrina Bldg., #1 Maaralin cor Matatag Sts., Brgy. Central,
Diliman, Quezon City 1100 PHILIPPINES
Telefax: (+632) 435 4146
Email: karapatan@karapatan.org
Website: www.karapatan.org

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PUBLIC INFORMATION DESK
publicinfo@karapatan.org
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Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights
2nd Flr. Erythrina Bldg., #1 Maaralin corner Matatag Sts., Central District
Diliman, Quezon City, PHILIPPINES 1101
Telefax: (+63 2) 4354146
Web: http://www.karapatan.org/

KARAPATAN is an alliance of human rights organizations and programs, human rights desks and committees of people’s organizations, and individual advocates committed to the defense and promotion of people’s rights and civil liberties. It monitors and documents cases of human rights violations, assists and defends victims and conducts education, training and campaign.