“We continue to condemn the AFP-PNP’s modus operandi of hostaging remains and burying under lies the truth about what really happened to these five civilians,” Karapatan ST said.
By JUSTIN UMALI
SANTA ROSA, Laguna – It has been over ten days since Vilma Salabao was slain in sitio Malalim, barangay San Jose, Baras, Rizal province, but police are not keen on allowing her daughter to claim her remains.
Salabao is one of the five victims of a massacre in a private mango farm in Baras. While the Armed Forces of the Philippines claimed that the casualties were “top-ranking” members of the New People’s Army (NPA), an investigation by human rights watchdog Karapatan Southern Tagalog revealed that the victims were civilians who were tortured and mutilated before they were killed.
Aside from Salabao, the other victims were identified as Carlito Zonio, a guard working at the farm, and farm workers Wesley Obmerga, and Jhonatan and Niño Alberga. Karapatan ST is currently trying to secure the release of the five’s remains; so far only Salabao’s remains withheld by the police.
Karapatan ST slammed this “continued hostaging,” saying that the Baras police reneged on their promise last December 24 to expedite the turnover of Salabao’s remains to her family.
In a statement released by the group, the police are insisting that Salabao’s family members must claim the remains personally, despite providing a Special Power of Attorney to Karapatan ST and other requirements.
In addition, Salabao’s loved ones are “scared of what might happen” should they appear in person, given the police and military’s insistence that Salabao is an NPA fighter.
“Previous experience with human rights violations have shown that the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and PNP [Philippine National Police] are notorious in harassing families of victims of false categorization as ‘rebels’ and ‘enemies of the state’ and subsequent murder,” Karapatan ST said in a statement.
Under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), “civilians or those taking no active part in the hostilities” are protected from “desecration of the remains of those who have died in the course of the armed conflict … and breach of duty to tender immediately such remains to their families or to give them decent burial.”
Karapatan ST also noted that the remains of the four individuals showed “clear signs of torture and desecration.”
In Wesley Obmerga’s case, Karapatan ST found out that the PNP Rizal Crime Laboratory in Tanay conducted an autopsy without permission from family members. Autopsy results reveal that Obmerga died due to hypovolemic shock from wounds sustained in the chest and stomach.
The remains of Jhonatan and Niño Alberga also bore clear marks of mutilation and torture.
Meanwhile, the Regional Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (RTF-ELCAC) is pressuring the local Baras government to deny the victims their rights. Barangay officials in San Juan recently cancelled the Certificates of Residency and Certificates of Indigency for the five victims, according to Karapatan ST.
“We continue to condemn the AFP-PNP’s modus operandi of hostaging remains and burying under lies the truth about what really happened to these five civilians,” Karapatan ST’s statement continued.
The group has pointed to an alarming pattern of violence and harassment in Southern Tagalog, which “blurs the line between civilian and combatant.”
In January, peasant organizers Emerito Pinza and Romy Candor were killed in Brgy. San Antonio, Kalayaan, Laguna. The victims’ families were bounced around military camps before Karapatan ST found their remains buried in mislabeled graves in Calamba, Laguna.
That same month, indigenous peoples’ rights activist Jay-ar Mercado was shot dead in Bulalacao, Oriental Mindoro. An autopsy shows signs that Mercado was drowned before he was hastily buried in a part of a cemetery slated to be cemented over.
Most recently, the deaths of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultants Eugenia Magpantay and Agaton Topacio this December echoed the fate suffered by Randy Echanis and other NDFP consultants. The couple, both 69 years old, were killed in “tokhang-style” killings after they reportedly “fired back” at police officers serving a warrant.
Active combatants suffered similar fates. Last August, three NPA fighters and an hors de combat were killed in an encounter in Kalayaan, Laguna. It took family members close to ten days before they were reunited with their loved ones, by then buried in separate cemeteries in Tuy, Batangas and Antipolo, Rizal.
The same case occurred a month later when five NPA fighters were killed in an encounter in Brooke’s Point, Palawan. Family members, some of whom came from as far as Batangas, were detained for days under the guise of “quarantine protocol” before they were allowed to claim their loved ones.
Karapatan ST is calling on the Baras police and the Baras LGU to provide “humanitarian consideration” for Salabao’s family. “Let us not make the process of returning Vilma Salabao’s remains to her family any more complicated than it has to be,” the group said in its statement. “We ask for consideration, especially this Christmas season, so that they can go home and experience the holidays in peace.”