Both Ben and Rita started out in the student movement against the then Marcos dictatorship and never wavered in their commitment to work for the rural poor.
By BRENDA GONZALEZ*
MANILA — On October 19, 2017, two workers of Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (ASCENT) were forcibly taken by about 10 armed members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit (CIDG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The ASCENT team led by Benito Quilloy and Rita Espinoza were in San Carlos, Negros Occidental to conduct a series of consultation with the members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). They conducted an environmental scanning and had workshops to identify appropriate development projects for members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), an ASCENT partner organization.
After having their lunch at Tingting’s Restaurant in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental, Ben and Rita, along with ASCENT’s project consultant and driver, were apprehended by the combined PNP-AFP members. They were not presented any warrant of arrest. They were handcuffed, blindfolded and brought to the Camp Alfredo Montelibano Sr. in Bacolod City.
The ASCENT project consultant then contacted the human rights organization Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) to ask for help while the driver asked the management of the restaurant to call for the police. The latter arrived after about five minutes. Two of the about 15 members of the Kabankalan police rode with the project consultant and driver in ASCENT’s rented car and started to go after the two vehicles separately carrying Benito and Rita.
However, the chase stopped when the Kabankalan police reportedly received information that the previous PNP-AFP action is a legitimate operation. They then asked the two ASCENT staff for a statement on what happened. Still shaken with fear, they pleaded with the police to release them so that they can go after their colleagues who appeared to be abducted. One of the policemen then gave the ASCENT driver a piece of paper with the words “Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office, Camp Alfredo Montelibano Sr., Bacolod City”. He told him that their co-workers would be brought to that place.
They then hurriedly left and parked at the Himamaylan Public Market so that they could be easily located. By then the project consultant already got word from the human rights organization Karapatan that a lawyer was already on the way to meet them. Atty. Benjamin Ramos of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) – Kabankalan arrived with two of his staff members. After listening to the account of the ASCENT project consultant and driver, Atty. Ramos instructed his two staff members to accompany the latter to proceed to Bacolod City.
Upon arriving in Bacolod City, the ASCENT personnel met with representatives of people’s organizations who were mobilized by the local Karapatan chapter. They decided to go to Camp Alfredo Montelibano Sr. where they came to know from the other PO representatives who were already there that there were two lawyers trying to get inside the camp.
The PO representatives told the ASCENT staff to go to a nearby restaurant where they will be briefed by Atty. Cesar Beloria Jr. who earlier was asserting to the authorities in Camp Alfredo Montelibano Sr. to let him talk to his clients Benito Quilloy and Rita Espinoza. Beloria was tapped by Karapatan to help out in the case of Quilloy and Espinoza.
Denial of the right to counsel
Beloria assured the ASCENT staff that their co-workers were inside the camp with Benito inside a cell while Rita was handcuffed and staying in a room. He said that they were obviously denied counsel and that his source of information regarding their condition is a journalist who was allowed to enter the camp.
The lawyer also advised the ASCENT staff and the other members of people’s organizations representatives to get some rest. He said that he would be back the following day to provide the necessary legal assistance to Benito and Rita.
The following day October 20, Ben and Rita were allowed to see their lawyers but only for a short time. It was only on October 21 that they were able to talk to Atty. Beloria and Atty. Maria Sol Taule from KARAPATAN for about 30 minutes. Still, no charges were presented to the lawyers. Authorities at the camp said that they were not in possession of the charges or the documents on these. The lawyers told them that they should be informed if ever there should be an inquest.
In the afternoon of that day, Benito and Rita were brought to Kabankalan for an inquest where the two refused to sign any document, asserting that they are not the ones cited in the documents presented to them. And at 11 p.m., on the last commercial flight from Bacolod to Manila, they were brought to Camp Crame in Cubao, Quezon City where they continue to be detained. Ben’s and Rita’s lawyers were not informed of all these activities involving their clients.
On October 24, 2017, former PNP Director General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa presented Ben and Rita in a press conference. He claimed that they are high-ranking members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). He cited them as Louie Antonio Martinez, the alleged logistics officer of the NPA and Aurora Cayon, allegedly a member of the National Finance Commission of the CPP. Ben and Rita have denied these allegations.
Similar to other political prisoners, Ben and Rita are accused of criminal offenses. They have been charged with illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions in Kabankalan. Ben is facing a murder charge filed in Agusan del Sur while Rita is facing a robbery and arson case also in Agusan del Sur. She also has murder case in Sibugay, Zamboanga.
Ben lacks only a few credits to complete his Sugar Technology (Batch 1970) course from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos (UPLB). He became president of the UPLB Chemical Society and was one of the founders of the Ecological Society of the Philippines.
Retired UP Professor Edward Deveza who has known Ben for about 40 years remembers him as a young student who lived and worked among the sugar workers in Negros Occidental.
“It was his experience with them that made the most impact on him and made him decide to work full-time among the farmers first as a scientist and technologist and eventually as a development worker engaged in the planning and implementation of support service programs,” Deveza said.
Rita, meanwhile, was a volunteer staff of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines from 2000-2007 when Sr. Patricia Fox was its national coordinator.
Sister Pat recalled, “I saw how dedicated and hard working Rita is. She was with us in the planning and implementation of development projects such as agricultural production and swine raising.”
Both Ben and Rita started out in the student movement against the then Marcos dictatorship and never wavered in their commitment to work for the rural poor. Seeing that development workers like themselves were experiencing human rights violations, they were among a handful of people who came up with the concept for ASCENT.
The need to promote genuine development and defend development projects and development workers became a necessity as development workers, among them Emerito Samarca of the Alternative Learning Center for Livelihood and Agricultural Development (ALCADEV) and Willem Geertman of the Alay Bayan Incorporated (ABI), were being killed. Many others are facing harassment and intimidation allegedly from government operatives who consider these people as engaging in anti-government activities.
One of life’s ironies is when the ones who have consistently work for the poor and marginalized are being accused of fabricated charges, vilified and made to languish in jail.
ASCENT’s Convenor and Senior Consultant Benito Quilloy and Project Staff Rita Espinoza are among these people. They are hardly unknown among development workers especially from the ASCENT national network.
Bishop Dindo Ranojo, ASCENT’s spokesperson said, “They could be anyone of our staff, anyone of us. It is a challenge and also an opportunity to further strengthen our resolve. We have fear but we have greater commitment to continue our work for genuine development with the poor and oppressed. Because we are Ben and Rita.”
*The author is a convenor of ASCENT.