By KIMBERLY BINALINGBING and MARIA VICENTA SALAZAR
With reports from Anne Marxze D. Umil
MANILA – State agents may be involved in the enforced disappearance of two young environmental defenders Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano in Orion, Bataan.
This is according to the result of a fact-finding mission (FFM) initiated by a group of human rights and environmental defenders from AKAP KA Manila Bay, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Promotion of Church People’s Response, National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Karapatan on Sept. 4 and 5.
The mission released its findings last Monday, Sept. 11.
Aldrein Silanga, campaign officer of environmental group Kalikasan, said that the mission “unearthed a report indicating that Castro had been red-tagged months before the abduction.”
“An unidentified soldier had visited her family in Bulacan, pressuring them to convince her to meet him and clear her name,” Silanga said in a statement.
“This indicates a clear motive for the two women’s abduction,” he added.
Castro, 21, and Tamano, 22, are members of the Alyansa para sa Pagtatanggol sa Kabuhayan, Paninirahan, at Kalikasan ng Manila Bay (AKAP KA Manila Bay), a network focused on addressing the environmental impacts of the Manila Bay reclamation projects on nearby local communities.
Castro and Tamano were assessing disasters in preparation for relief operations in the coastal areas of Bulacan and Bataan when they were abducted on Sept. 2.
Read: 2 envi activists missing
According to witnesses, the abduction took place around 7:00 p.m. in front of the office of Orion Water District in Lati, Orion.
Four masked and armed individuals forced the two environmental defenders into a silver Toyota Innova, leaving behind the victims’ sandals and slippers, indicating that there was a struggle.
‘Screaming for help’
According to the mission’s report, several residents witnessed the abduction of Castro and Tamano, which happened in a well-lit and busy street.
Those who saw the incident said that the Innova vehicle stopped beside the two women who were then walking. Both struggled while they were taken inside the vehicle.
“One of them managed to run away but was immediately dragged back to the vehicle. The other young woman tried to pry open or climb over the gate of one of the residents, but was also dragged back into the Innova vehicle,” the report read.
When one of the residents tried to help, one of the armed men, purportedly acting as a lookout shouted, “huwag kang makialam, kung ayaw mong madamay” (do not get in the way, if you don’t want to be involved).
Residents along Manrique street said they heard the two women screaming for help but they did not intervene because the abductors were armed, the report said.
The incident, including the make and plate number of the vehicle, was immediately reported to barangay officials. Police personnel from Philippine National Police-Orion also reportedly arrived that night, Sept. 2.
But the FFM reported that the Castro family and members of their mission faced difficulties when they sought assistance from the Orion Municipal Police Station last Sept. 4.
According to the mission’s report, the police station personnel refused to make a police blotter report on the abduction and to provide updates on their investigation. They also did not sign the required form under Republic Act No. 10353 or the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Law.
The FFM noted that the authorities seemed to be more “focused on investigating the victims’ background rather than helping to resolve the disappearance and conduct a proper investigation.”
Meanwhile, the FFM recommendations include:
1. For the Commission on Human Rights to initiate an independent and comprehensive investigation into the incident, conducting unannounced and unrestricted visits to all places of detention, including police and military facilities, and providing timely updates to Castro’s family.
2. For the PNP and other law enforcement agencies to cease from intimidating Castro’s family and the human rights organizations supporting efforts to locate the two missing women.
3. For the enforcement officers to adhere to RA 10353 and refrain from intimidating the residents of barangay Lati, where the incident occurred, preventing them from freely providing statements and testimonies as eyewitnesses.
4. For the House of Representatives and the Senate to establish independent investigations into the incident to fulfill their oversight functions in the implementation of RA 10353.
5. For the non-governmental and human rights organizations to conduct independent investigations into the incident.
6. For international human rights watchdogs and organizations to support the efforts to locate the two missing women and to ensure that their rights and well-being are protected.
9th and 10th victims under Marcos Jr.
In an earlier statement, human rights group Karapatan expressed concerns on the abduction of Castro and Tamano. The two are the ninth and tenth victims of enforced disappearance under Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration.
In its June 30, 2023 report, Karapatan said that the number of enforced disappearances under the watch of Marcos Jr. already accounted for 40 percent of the 20 documented cases under former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term. This new case of disappearance would bring the number to half of that which occurred during Duterte’s watch.
Marcos Jr. has only been in power for over a year.
The group called for an independent and comprehensive investigation into the abduction of Castro and Tamano. They also demanded the safe return of these environmental defenders and stood in solidarity with their families and colleagues.
Church leaders from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and fisherfolk group Pamalakaya also called for the surfacing of Castro and Tamano.
AKAP KA Manila Bay described Castro and Tamano as staunch anti-reclamation activists and church program coordinators. The two have previously experienced surveillance and harassment in barangay Balut, Orion.
The 18,000-hectare Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project, as stated by the group, covers numerous communities that are threatened by reclamation projects, including the towns along the coast of Bataan province. (AMU, JJE, RTS, RVO)