Hostilities vs. Human Rights: State agents in the forefront of HR violations

By Penz Baterna

“Kill, Kill, Kill,” was not only the President’s mantra for the war on drugs. It has also become his immediate response to address other important issues including insurgency and even the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current cleavages dividing political parties, civil society groups, and individuals reflect a fundamental disagreement about the place of human rights in our society. The media should be a key instrument for the clarification of the principles, their meanings, and how policies must reflect them in order to sustain human rights in our way of life. 

The state which dominates the public sphere must be constantly challenged, as the Constitution does limit what public officials can do to pursue their political goals. 

This fundamental conflict deserves to be reflected in media accounts. Public discourse, including debate and argumentation, should clarify fundamental values so we can create a common ground on which policies and programs can be built.  

WHEN RODRIGO Duterte became President in 2016, he made official the policy of violence against citizens in breach of law and the national arena has since been fraught, given this deadly policy that condones with impunity police killings of drug suspects and addicts. 

Based on police data, the campaign resulted in the killings of 6,215 suspects by police during drug operations from July 1, 2016 to October 31, 2021. But human rights advocates pegged the number at more than 30,000 killings to include the thousands of drug suspects killed by so-called vigilante groups because evidence had shown these were also directed by police. 

The war on drugs became the administration’s banner policy. It bared Duterte’s disregard for human rights and caused him to be charged with crimes against humanity filed before the International Criminal Court (ICC).  In September 2021, the Court had already given the green light for an official probe. But the investigation was temporarily halted in November after the Philippine government filed a deferral request.   

“Kill, Kill, Kill,” was not only the President’s mantra for the war on drugs. It has also become his immediate response to address other important issues including insurgency and even the Covid-19 pandemic. The brute display of power has become Duterte’s brand in addressing many of his major policies.  And not surprisingly, hostility and violence became a pattern, a response which resonated through the ranks down to the lowest rung of the bureaucracy.

In 2021, media reported several incidents of violence by police and state agents including barangay watchmen against civilians and activists. These include killings, power-tripping, red-tagging, and arrests.

Pandemic year 2: Violence vs. quarantine violators

The country continued to grapple with the effects of the pandemic in the second year, with the surge of cases caused by the Delta variant. Metro Manila along with Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan were placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from March 29 to April 11. With police authorities placed in the forefront of the lockdown, the horrors recorded by media were similar to those in 2020. 

The strict implementation of the protocols during the period led to inhumane actions to penalize violators including harassment at checkpoints and extreme physical punishment. Two most prominent cases during this time, led to death of alleged curfew violators:

  • Darren Peñaredondo was arrested on April 1, 2021 by barangay (village) watchmen in General Trias, Cavite. He left his residence during curfew hours to buy drinking water. He was surrendered to the police, who forced him to do 300 squats. Because he had a pre-existing heart problem, he had a stroke and died two days after.
  • Ernanie Jimenez was allegedly beaten by barangay watchmen in Calamba, Laguna after violating the curfew on April 4. Jimenez was comatose for two days before he died on April 6.

In the succeeding months, as the protocols became more lenient, the media continued to flag police violence as they happened. But these were merely reported as isolated incidents. Following the government narrative, media reports did not note the pattern formed by these separate cases. From August to October, CMFR found five more of these cases in media coverage:

    • August 7: Barangay tanod (civilian village patrol) Cesar Panlaqui shot dead Eduardo Geñoga, a 59-year-old curfew violator with a mental illness in Tondo, Manila. 
    • August 27: Patrolman Elmer Tuazon Jr. and civilian Armando Dimaculangan molested a 19-year-old female quarantine violator in Bataan.  
    • September 22: Barangay tanod “Dexter” along with six other barangay tanod made four minors walk naked as “punishment” for violating restrictions and bathing in a river in Cavite.
    • October 8: Police Staff Sergeant Robin Mangaga sexually abused a female motorbike rider before allowing her to go beyond a checkpoint. 
    • October 14: Police officers of different ranks demanded PHP 50,000 from three curfew violators for their release. The officers were Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Mejia, Cpl. Jigie Azores, Cpl. Johndee Toledo, Cpl. Kevin John Villanueva, Pat. Danny Rangaig, and Pat. Kenneth Cordova.

More “isolated” killings

More “isolated” cases of killings were reported, perpetrated apart from police enforcement of the pandemic protocols.  And most media failed to recognize that all these incidents were perpetrated by state agents. 

CMFR noted cases from January to June 2021 of the bloody trail which left 20 dead — including activists, barangay officials, a youth with autism, an urban dweller, farmers, indigenous people, and peace consultants associated with the left.

    • January 6: Aldrin Enriquez, an activist, was handcuffed and shot by the police in his home in Iriga City, Camarines Sur. The police tagged him as a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) and said he fought back.
    • March 7: Dubbed as “Bloody Sunday,” when nine activists, namely Emmanuel Asuncion, Ariel Evangelista, Ana Mariz Evangelista, Melvin Dasigao, Mark Lee Basano, Puro Dela Cruz, Randy Dela Cruz, Abner Esto, and Edward Esto were killed in the course of raids conducted by police at dawn in Laguna, Rizal, and Batangas. The police said victims were also members of the NPA but media did not say what evidence supported that claim.
    • March 26: Barangay Captain Elmer Casabuena was killed in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, by the police in his home due to alleged possession of firearms and drugs. 
    • April 25: Barangay Kagawad  (councilor) Froilan Saez Oaferina III, in Buhi town, Camarines Sur, was shot three times after 30 police officers allegedly served a search warrant against him due to illegal possession of firearms.
    • May 23: Edwin Arnigo, an 18-year-old with autism, was shot dead by the police after an alleged gun scuffle in a police raid of an illegal cockfighting game in Valenzuela City. 
    • May 28: Reynaldo Bocala, a peace consultant for the National Democratic Front (NDF), and his aide Welly Arguelles Epago were killed in a police raid in a house in Pavia, Iloilo. In a separate incident on the same date, former priest and peace consultant, Rustico Tan was shot dead in his home in Pilar, Camotes Island in Cebu.
    • May 31: Lilibeth Valdez was shot in the neck by Police Master Sergeant Zinampan in Quezon City, a case caught on video by the victim’s grandson. Zinampan was reported to be drunk and was off-duty. Media reported that the officer had issues with the family, which had caused open hostilities between him and the victim’s family.
    • June 16: Willy Rodriguez, Leni Rivas, and 12-year-old Angel Rivas of the Lumad-Manobo tribe, were killed by the military after they asked permission to harvest their abaca (Manila hemp). The military said Rodriguez and Rivas were members of the NPA and it was an encounter.
War against communist insurgency

CMFR notes that most of the killings were against people associated with the Left.

When Duterte terminated the talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) in 2017, he immediately issued Proclamation No. 374 which labelled the NPA as a “communist terrorist group (CTG)”. The president declared a policy of “all-out-war” against the group with threats to wipe-out rebellion by ordering the state forces to kill insurgents on sight.

In December 2018, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70 (EO 70). The wording of the EO shows a “whole of nation” approach in attaining inclusive and sustainable peace with Communist rebels; a view of the insurgency as a social problem rather than purely a military and security concern. Its mandate plans to win back communities supposedly under the influence of the CPP-NPA-NDF and help conflict-affected areas by responding to their basic and social needs. The same order created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to facilitate its implementation. 

But the NTF-ELCAC and its member agencies, more than any other action, has focused its campaign on propaganda which involved the hostile red-tagging against activists and critics of this administration.

But the NTF-ELCAC and its member agencies, more than any other action, has focused its campaign on propaganda which involved the hostile red-tagging against activists and critics of this administration.

But the NTF-ELCAC and its member agencies, more than any other action, has focused its campaign on propaganda which involved the hostile red-tagging against activists and critics of this administration.

One of the casualties was Patricia Non, a pioneer advocate of the “community pantry” — a movement which involved local communities in responding to the widespread hunger of many affected by the lockdown and loss of jobs. These groups created makeshift “pantries” of basic goods which people could get for free. These were also open to donations of any food that they could share, in whatever quantity or kind, for people who could not afford to eat during the pandemic. The rules were simple, “give whatever you can, take only what you need.” Non’s effort inspired more volunteers in different parts of the country to put up their own community pantries. 

But Non became the victim of “doxing” by security agents, along with other volunteers, charging that Non and the groups were linked with the CPP-NPA. 

CMFR cheered Rappler’s investigative report which pinpointed the government’s massive propaganda campaign against activists and left-leaning organizations. The report pointed to the top perpetrator of red-tagging, the NTF-ELCAC. The agency also served as the center of the online campaign that was adopted by state media, police and army official pages, content creators, and political pages, among others. 

Censorship of Universities

Still part of its fight against insurgency, the military pressured state universities to pull out and turn over “subversive” books to them and the police. These reports underscored the impact of such action on academic freedom. Materials which were turned to the military group included reference materials on the aborted peace talks between negotiating panels of the government and the NDF, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHIHL) and books authored by Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Anti-Terror Law

The anti-terror act was signed into law by the President in July 2020. Human rights advocates were quick to file a total of 37 petitions to the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional. Some of its questionable provisions, among others, include: (1) vague definition of terrorism/terrorists; (2) Anti-Terrorism council’s executive power to designate individuals or organizations as terrorists; (3) warrantless arrest and detention without charges of suspected terrorists for up to 24 days; and (4) surveillance of suspected terrorists lasting up to 90 days compared to the 60 day-period in the previous legislation.

On December 7, 2021 the Supreme Court ruled two of the provisions of the law as “unconstitutional.”  Voting 12-3, the court declared as unlawful a provision in the anti-terrorism law, which stated that a protest could be considered terrorism if intended to cause death or physical harm, to endanger a person’s life, or create a serious public safety risk.

Voting 9-6, the SC declared unconstitutional a designation method that would have allowed the country’s anti-terrorism council to adopt proscriptions by supranational authorities after a through criteria review.

All other provisions of the law were declared “not unconstitutional” according to the High Court. 

CMFR notes that in July 2021, the media reported that four farmers in Mindoro Occidental were arrested by the military for violating the anti-terror law by allegedly helping members of the NPA.  More such cases loom in the future now following the SC decision.

The Duterte Effect

Duterte used climate of fear to threaten those who did not follow or opposed his policies — violators and critics alike. As he leaves the seat of power, a bureaucracy may well continue to carry out the hostile treatment of their critics and opponents. The Duterte effect could be sustained by those who succeed in gaining the vote and in leading the nation, continue to disregard human rights.

So, it is important for the media to contextualize the administration’s policies on human rights. Reference to the existing charters of the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and international bodies should contextualize all media reports of police actions that suggest the dismissal of human rights principles.

Even with the Supreme Court’s decision on the Anti-Terror Law, media should continue to present the human rights framework that has long served as the foundation of laws, including its strong expression in the 1987 Constitution.  

The media should also continue to report the aggressions of state agents and report them not just as isolated cases. Analyze the incidents and establish patterns. Flag the state-sponsored violence. These will help the citizen stay vigilant against the inhumane practices of authorities.