By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — Jen Awingan-Taggaoa has spent more than half her life as a community organizer in the Cordillera region. A researcher of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), Taggaoa would often go to far-flung communities to know how so-called development projects affect the indigenous people’s lives.
Taggaoa never thought that her work is now considered an act of terrorism. On July 10, 2023, Taggaoa and three other Igorot leaders were designated as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) in its Resolution No. 41. The ATC claimed that the four activists allegedly violated Sections 10 and 12 of the ATA, which refers to recruitment to and membership in a terrorist organization, and providing material support to terrorist organizations, respectively.
“Since childhood, I never committed any crime. I’m turning 50, I spent my life as a community organizer and human rights defender…I could not understand why I was labeled a terrorist. It angers me,” Taggaoa told Bulatlat in a phone interview.
Taggaoa’s case is not isolated. Community doctor Naty Castro was also designated as a terrorist by virtue of ATC Resolution No. 35. Records from human rights alliance Karapatan also showed that 16 political prisoners have been charged with the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). In the Southern Tagalog region alone, 19 activists were slapped with ATA charges.
The warning declared by various groups in 2020 – that the ATA would be used by the government to intimidate and harass human rights defenders, activists and dissenters – has become a reality.
No due process
The powers given to the ATC, for one, raised a lot of questions.
Since 2021, the ATC has published its lists of designated terrorists on its website. Like many of those included in the list, Taggaoa knew about the designation from friends who had read the news. They were not afforded the right to due process. The ATC does not provide any evidence to justify the designation, only citing “verified information from Philippine law enforcement agencies.”
The freezing of assets, which comes after the designation, is inconsiderate, Taggaoa said.
Four days after the designation, her husband received a notice from one of the banks that his account had been frozen. The other banks did not even bother to inform him.
“My husband has nothing to do with the case. When Kara [their daughter] used the supplemental credit card, her transactions were declined,” Taggaoa said.
This has affected the day-to-day activities of their family. The worse part, she said, is that they have to stay apart for security reasons. Scheduled family reunions had to be postponed, for example.
The legal remedies cited in the ATA’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) prove to be inadequate too. According to the IRR, designated groups and individuals can request for delisting before the ATC within 15 days.
Jen’s mother wrote a letter of appeal to the ATC but to no avail. The designation is valid for three years based on the IRR but Taggaoa and the others could not just wait. They have decided to avail of other legal remedies, asking a local court to overturn the terrorist designation.
In its decision on the ATA, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the caveat on Section 4 defining terrorism, which read, “The law does not include advocacy, protest, dissent and similar actions which are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety” for being overbroad and violative of freedom of expression.
The ATA, Taggaoa said, is used to stop them from doing their work as indigenous people’s advocates. The CPA has been active in supporting the communities’ struggles against several dam projects in the region.
Another woman human rights defender, Hailey Pecayo, found herself in the crosshairs of the Philippine military for performing humanitarian work. The 59th Infantry Battalion (IB) filed ATA charges against Pecayo, Kenneth S. Rementilla and Jasmin Yvette Rubia who joined a fact-finding mission in July 2022 investigating the human rights violations in Taysan, Batangas, including the killing of nine-year-old Kyllene Casao.
In an interview with Bulatlat, Pecayo said that the charges are part of the retaliation by the 59th IB after they exposed the military’s crimes in Batangas.
Pecayo, 20, is the spokesperson of human rights group Tanggol Batangan. She is used to visiting political prisoners in jails and documenting human rights attacks on marginalized sectors. She never thought she would end up being the subject of documentation by fellow human rights defenders.
She said that because of the charges, she could not visit her family, fearing for their safety. She also had to observe additional security measures, limiting her mobility and preventing her from participating in activities she used to do.
The charges against Pecayo, Rementilla and Rubia were dismissed recently by the prosecutors for lack of probable cause. This does not bring any relief though.
Scores of activists are still facing ATA charges. Seven of the 19 charged with ATA in Southern Tagalog are farmers, two are Church workers and the rest are human rights defenders and community organizers. Ten have been charged with violating Section 12 of the ATA or providing material support to terrorists.
Both Taggaoa and Pecayo assert that the ATA should be junked.
“The state is using laws to repress resistance,” Taggaoa said.
Despite the difficulties, Taggaoa said she and fellow activists are not giving up. “No matter how the government tries to paint us as terrorists, I take comfort in knowing that the communities we went to believe that we are not terrorists,” Taggaoa said.
For Pecayo, the charges against her pushed her even more to continue her work.
In one of her hearings, sugar workers from Batangas joined the protest outside the court to support her.
This story is supported by the German Embassy Manila as part of Bulatlat’s project titled, “Advancing human rights reporting in the Philippines as a tool for upholding gender fairness, democracy and accountability.”