15 September 2023
RIGHTS GROUPS DENOUNCE STATEMENTS BY NTF-ELCAC, PNP ON THE CASE OF JONILA CASTRO AND JHED TAMANO
Today’s press conference by the National Task Force to End Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) confirms what we have been stated as a stark possibility — that State actors are involved in the disappearance of Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, two environmental activists who were reported missing on the night of September 2 in Orion, Bataan.
In their convoluted narrative, Jonila and Jhed had allegedly been “picked up” by a woman named “Ate” whom they supposedly approached to facilitate their surrender to State authorities. “Ate” allegedly brought them first to a house in Guagua, Pampanga, and it took a number of days before she could connect Jonila and Jhed to the authorities, until the two young activists supposedly formally surrendered to the 70th Infantry Battalion on September 12, 2023.
The government’s version of events begs so many questions, foremost of which is, why would Jonila and Jhed bother to ask “Ate’s” help and surrender in such a roundabout way, when a soldier by the name of Justin Gutierrez had already been frequenting Jonila’s family home in Plaridel, Bulacan since 2022 to “convince” the activist to “clear her name” and had even left his number with Jonila’s mother just in case Jonila decides to surrender. The two activists could have also approached Jhed’s stepfather, who, as a former soldier, presumably has connections to the military.
A photo grab from CCTV footage showing Jonila and Jhed walking on a road near the time of the reported abduction does not show “Ate” in a vehicle near them, nor does it show Jonila and Jhed normally entering a vehicle. The photo grab does nothing to support the narrative of the NTF-ELCAC and the PNP that they had voluntarily gone with “Ate.”
With only brief video clips of Jonila and Jhed presented at the press conference, and with no actual copies of their so-called affidavits provided to the media for scrutiny, the veracity of the claims of the PNP and the NTF-ELCAC remain seriously in doubt.
That they were not personally presented during the press conference reveals a lot of things. The most obvious of which is that the NTF-ELCAC and the PNP are not prepared to present them for questioning by the media, where they could be asked questions regarding the circumstances of their abduction.
Further, the voluntariness of the execution of the alleged affidavits is of doubtful validity, considering that the same was signed while the two were under the custody of a military unit, and were not represented by a lawyer of their own choice. With their condition, they were not in a position to refuse to be represented by counsel provided to them by their military custodian and to assert to be represented by a counsel of their own choice or one engaged by their families. It must be noted that the family has engaged lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group to represent them.
The NTF-ELCAC and PNP have failed to prove that no abduction took place. Unless and until Jonila and Jhed are allowed to speak freely outside of the military’s custody, there can be no assurance that their statements are authentic and not delivered under duress.
At no time during the press conference did the NTF-ELCAC and PNP say that Jonila and Jhed are facing charges. With no legal reason for State authorities to detain them, they should be released to their families immediately.
If they are facing charges, then they should be presented in court and remanded to a regular detention facility.
We demand the immediate safe release of Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano. We support all efforts to ensure that the rights of the two are respected and upheld, including their rights against illegal/arbitrary detention, physical and/or psychological torture, due process, and independent and competent legal assistance.
AKAP Ka Manila Bay, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Promotion for Church Peoples’ Response, KARAPATAN