By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Many Filipinos who have never been outside Luzon may very well wonder where Samar is. Many may even be stymied if confronted with queries as to where Eastern Visayas is in the Philippine map. In any case, both the region and the province are seldom featured in the pages of Manila-based broadsheets. They should be, if only because of the alarming human rights situation and the continuing violations against the civil, political and human rights of activists and ordinary civilians there.
Recently, writer and poet Ericson Acosta was arrested in San Jorge in Samar . Earlier, National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Eduardo Sarmiento was arrested, as well as peasant leader Dario Tomada.
The Alliance of Concerned Samareños (ACOS) recently released to media an initial fact sheet on the Catbalogan 5. ACOS is signatory to a support statement calling for Acosta’s release, part of which says: “It behooves the Aquino government to forge favorable conditions in the conduct of its peace efforts by releasing political prisoners.”
The National Democratic Front in the Eastern Visayas (NDF-EV) has already assailed the Benigno Aquino III government for brushing aside provisions of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) with regard the continuing human rights violations in the region and the illegal arrest of its peace consultants.
According to the NDF-EV, Aquino casts a shadow on the peace process with its “yawning indifference.”
The Catbalogan 5
When barangay officials in Bay-ang, San Jorge raised the alarm after Acosta was arrested by the military, human rights groups led by Katungod-Sinirangan Bisayas (Katungod-SB) immediately looked for Acosta in military detachments and detention facilities all over Samar. They asked civilians around military camps if soldiers had brought in captives; inquired with the wardens and jail guards if they had new prisoners accused of being “rebels.”
A jail guard in a Catbalogan jail answered in the affirmative and revealed that there were already five such “rebels” in their custody. One of the prisoners was brought to the jail in August 2010, but the others rest have been in prison for as long as since 2004.
It was then Katungod –SB discovered the Catbalogan 5. After the human rights group found Acosta and were told that the cultural worker had already been remitted to the Calbayog sub-provincial jail, they realized that they had to also give attention to the plight of the other political detainees.
The Catbalogan 5 is composed of farmers Noel Galvez, Simon Gabijan, Jesus Bacnotan and spouses Loreto and Beatriz Gabuay. Except for Loreto’s wife Beatriz, all of them face criminal charges related to NPA actions in Samar. Beatriz “chose” to stay in detention, and, according to reports, insist that she would not leave her husband in jail out of fear for his safety and life. She said that military men continue to visit their barrio to harass her, even when Loreto was already behind bars.
Based on signed interviews and fact sheets initially forwarded by human rights volunteers in Samar, the Catbalogan 5 underwent the same, if not worse circumstances of illegal arrest suffered by political prisoners like Acosta, Tomada and Sarmiento. Their personal accounts and testimonies regarding their ordeal expose how some, if not all, of them were subjected to torture and gross human rights violations while under the custody of authorities who arrested, and later accused them of false and manufactured charges to justify their continued detention.
According to human rights groups, the charges against the farmers range from robbery to multiple murder, were made in connection with high-profile “tactical offensives” launched by the NPA in the last decade. From these offensive actions, the NPA carted away several high-powered firearms from the AFP and the PNP, while government forces usually suffered heavy casualties.
Ordinary farmers tortured, accused of being NPA
Noel Galvez, 42, is a farmer from Barangay Buloan in Calbiga town. He was arrested in August 2010 as he was accompanying other barrio residents to register with the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Calbiga in time for the barangay elections which took place the following October.
Sources say that Galvez, who had long been accused by the military of being a NPA supporter, was convinced that he should avail of the army’s offer of reconciliation especially after the Aquino administration promised a better future for ordinary citizens. Galvez had earlier submitted himself for “clearance” at a military detachment for him to be able to “campaign freely” for a barrio politician.
Despite this “clearance,” he was still arrested and charged with frustrated murder and multiple murder in relation to an NPA raid in Barangay Binanggaran, Calbiga. Two troopers were reportedly killed, while two high-powered rifles were seized by the NPA in that December 17, 2009 incident.
Galvez said that he has witnesses to prove that he was working on his farm when the raid happened, but a certain Capt. Renante Morales of the 8th ID insisted that it was Galvez he saw a hundred meters from his position. Capt. Morales said that Galvez in fact wore a green shirt, and served as “blocking force” in the rebel attack.
Simon Gabijan, 48, of Barangay Lipata in Paranas town said that he was fishing with his family all morning until noon on February 28, 2002. He had learned that the NPA raided the Municipal Police Station (MPS) in nearby Motiong, from the usual barrio word-of-mouth when they got home. Based on information from actual news reports, the early morning raid of the NPA resulted in three casualties for the PNP, while the rebels seized at least 15 high-powered firearms from the poorly-manned police detachment.
After a few months, Gabijan received a subpoena. In it he was accused of participating in the raid. He immediately went to the Motiong police station to clear his name. At the station, the local officers assured Gabijan that there was nothing to worry about – they told him that the rebels who participated in the raid were all young men so it was unlikely that Gabijan was actually involved.
The chief of police who identified himself as Rivera told Gabijan to ask a Judge Jakosalem about his case. The judge in turn, advised Gabijan to get a lawyer so that he could file a motion to quash. He attempted to get a lawyer, but given his limited resources – and probably banking on the assurances made by the police officers – Gabijan just went on to try his luck in Manila.