Human rights watchdog Karapatan noted that the military threatened to file a criminal case against Alexa Pacalda if they did not sign an affidavit. Her father Arnulfo was coerced into signing and convinced his daughter to do so as well, “fearful of what the military could do to [her].”
By JUSTIN UMALI
SANTA ROSA, Laguna – It has been a year since human rights defender Alexa Pacalda was arrested by elements of the military while consulting with farmers in barangay Magsaysay, General Luna, Quezon. Despite appeals by rights groups and family members, Pacalda has still yet to taste freedom.
According to youth group Anakbayan Quezon, Pacalda is still detained in a jail in Lucena City on trumped up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Elements of the Army’s 201st Infantry Brigade wearing plainclothes arrested her without a warrant on Sept. 14, 2019, before declaring that she was a member of the revolutionary New People’s Army who “voluntarily surrendered.”
Pacalda’s father, Arnulfo, however, stated that his daughter was “labeled as an NPA surrenderee when she is actually a human rights worker conducting a consultation in the area.”
An activist and human rights defender
Before Pacalda became a human rights defender, she was a student journalist and activist. While studying in Manuel S. Enverga University Foundation, she helped organize a campus chapter of Gabriela Youth. She was also the managing editors of MSEUF’s student publication, The Luzonian, and was a member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines – eventually becoming the secretary general for CEGP Southern Tagalog.
After graduation, Pacalda decided to pursue activism full-time, with particular interest in protecting the rights of farmers in Quezon, affiliating herself with farmers’ rights group Pinag-isang Lakas ng Magsasaka sa Quezon (PIGLAS-Quezon).
At the time of the arrest, she was holding a consultation with the coconut farmers in barangay Magsaysay.
Her whereabouts were revealed two days later when it was found out that she was in the custody of the 201st Brigade in Calauag, Quezon.
According to her father, Pacalda was deprived of food and sleep for over 24 hours before being coerced to sign a document stating that she was a member of the NPA who wished to “return to the fold.”
It took nine days before the military filed charges of “illegal possession of firearms and explosives” on September 23 against her.
This was after the Commission on Human Rights called for Pacalda’s release on account of having no charges filed against her.
State-owned media was however quick to proclaim that Pacalda was a member of the NPA. A report from the Philippine News Agency called her a “surrenderee,” even referring to a statement made by her father Arnulfo.
Until now, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr., spokesperson for the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), regularly cites Pacalda as a case of an “activist turned NPA.” Most recently, he invoked Pacalda’s name while red-tagging Zara Alvarez, a recent victim of extra-judicial killing by suspected state forces.
Arnulfo has since recounted that statement, saying that it was done under duress. Human rights watchdog Karapatan noted that the military threatened to file a criminal case against Pacalda if they did not sign an affidavit. Arnulfo was coerced into signing and convinced his daughter to do so as well, “fearful of what the military could do to [her].”
Indicative of other cases
From July 2016 to April 2020, Karapatan noted 832 cases of illegal arrest with detention nationwide, and 3,342 cases of fake or forced surrender. The group has also stated that Pacalda’s case was “indicative of how other cases of ‘voluntary surrenders’ came to be.”
“Alexa Pacalda is just one of too many cases of people facing trumped-up charges,” a statement from Karapatan Quezon read. “Most of them are defenders who have chosen to serve the people and protect the basic human rights of the Filipino people.”
Groups have long asserted that there is a link between the phenomenon of fake surrenderees and corruption. Under the Enhanced Community Livelihood and Integration Program (E-CLIP), members of the Communist Party of the Philippines, its armed wing the New People’s Army, and members of people’s militias can opt to surrender and receive a livelihood package amounting to roughly P65,000 (roughly US$1,343) to help them “start again.”
However, groups like Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) and party-list organization Bayan Muna have claimed that authorities “invent rebel returnees and then bag the P65,000 prize.” This is compounded by multiple reports nationwide of police and military coercing people to pose as surrenderees.
In December 2019, Bayan Muna representatives urged Congress to probe the military’s “fake surrenderees,” after the 9th Infantry Division used a badly edited image ad evidence of “rebel returnees” in Masbate.