De Castro said human rights violations create a climate of fear and apathy. “That is the very intention of the state. It also wants to ostracize the protest movement.”
“Gusto nating i-break yung pagtingin sa mga legal organizations bilang front organizations ng Communist Party[of the Philippines]…” de Castro added. (We want to break the perception that legal organizations are front organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines.)
She explained that under Arroyo’s counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL-Operation Freedom Watch), legal organizations are tagged as communists and terrorists and are regarded as legitimate targets of attack. She added that state security agents justify extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances by claiming that the victims are either members or sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA).
The Karapatan leader belied the accusations of the military, saying that most of the victims are civilians. A significant number of victims of extra-judicial killings were active officers and members of people’s organizations fighting for economic, social, political and cultural rights, she said.
Defenders in danger
Of the 420 leaders and members of people’s organizations killed since 2001, 35 are from Bayan Muna (People First), Karapatan records showed. Six human rights lawyers have also been killed, according to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (CODAL). There are 15 human rights lawyers who have been included in the military’s order of battle (OB).
De Castro said that Karapatan leaders and members, especially those in documentation work, are most vulnerable to abuses. Of the 34 Karapatan members killed, seven were murdered during fact-finding missions. Among them were Eden Marcellana and Eddie Gumanoy, and Benjaline Hernandez
Documenting human rights abuses, said de Castro, is a matter of life and death.
De Castro said that many of their members have also been victims of red baiting. She cited the case of Fred Caña, secretary general of Karapatan-Negros. She said that the military declared Caña as persona non-grata and even burned an effigy of the Karapatan leader.
Others, said de Castro, have been slapped with ‘fabricated’ charges. She mentioned the murder charges against Southern Tagalog human rights advocates Doris Cuario and Dina Captillo.
The attacks, de Castro admitted, caused a decline in the number of their volunteers and the dissolution of some of their chapters. “It has created a leadership vacuum,” de Castro said, referring to loss of many of their leaders in Southern Tagalog and Eastern Visayas.
De Castro related that in Eastern Visayas, four regional leaders were killed. They were Cui, human rights lawyer Felidito Dacut, Rev. Edison Lapuz and Bienvenido Bajado.
De Castro said Karapatan’s campaign to expose the atrocities of the military has earned for them the ire of the state.
She said that there were times that they were barred by the military from conducting fact-finding missions. They were also subjected to different forms of harassment, said de Castro.
Amid threats and harassment, de Castro said their members employ creative ways in fulfilling their work.
De Castro lamented that instead of getting protection from the government, they themselves have been victims of abuses.
The group is lobbying for the passage of House Bill 5600 or the Human Rights Defenders’ Protection Act filed on Dec. 9, 2008 by progressive party-list groups led by House Minority Deputy Floor Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo, the bill is still pending with the House Committee on Human Rights.
The bill defines a HR defender as “any individual who is bona fide connected to any human rights organization whose main work and advocacy is to promote the respect for, foster knowledge of, and protect any form of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The salient provisions of the bill include the endowment of rights to HR defenders such as the rights to develop and advocate HR, participate in public affairs, legal assistance, unhindered communication, and access to government, military and paramilitary documents and assets. It also requires the government to ensure the safety of HR defenders.
The penalty for violations of such provisions includes imprisonment or fines of up to Php 100,000 ($2,116 at the May 9, 2009 exchange rate of $1=P47.25).
De Castro said the Philippine government must enact the bill as an act of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Adopted in December 1998, the said UN declaration states that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.