The case of Zara Reboton Alvarez

Zara Reboton Alvarez is a teacher, political activist, and human rights defender on the island of Negros. She was secretary general (2002-2004) and chairwoman of the youth organization Anak Bayan-Negros, coordinator of the student organization College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), deputy secretary general of the umbrella organization Bayan Negros, and campaign and education officer for the human rights organization Karapatan-Negros. In the run-up to elections, she worked as a campaigner in Negros and on the neighboring island of Panay. At the time of her arrest, she was working for the human rights organization Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (NNAHRA). Meanwhile Alvarez works as a researcher and advocacy representative for the Negros Island Health Integrated Program for Community Development (NIHIPCD).

Already in 2004, Alvarez became the target of a defamatory campaign by the military denouncing her at public events and on military radio as a communist terrorist. In addition, she received threatening text messages (“We are watching you”) and her daily activities were subject to surveillance. In 2008, during her repeated documentation of human rights violations, Alvarez was declared to be a persona non grata in Guihulngan City along with her colleagues Fred Caña and Felipe Levy Gelle.

The campaigns of defamation and harassment against Zara Alvarez finally culminated in her illegal arrest on October 30, 2012 in Cadiz City, her native city. However, the warrant was issued for a Sarah Alvarez, resident in Talisay City, and accuses her of being a senior member of the New People’s Army (NPA). Like many others, Alvarez learnt of the accusation against her only at the time of her arrest.

As an alleged high-ranking officer of the NPA, Alvarez was supposed to have been involved in the murder of Archie Polenzo. Polenzo, a lieutenant in the Philippine army (AFP), died in a skirmish with suspected members of the NPA on March 7, 2010. Forty-three individuals have been charged in connection with his death. Twenty-two of them, among them Alvarez, were only subsequently added to the indictment through the so-called John/Jane Doe process.

This additional charge is based on the testimony of an alleged ex-rebel who is supposed to have participated in the armed encounter. However, he himself was never charged.

Many of the 43 persons accused are, like Alvarez, members or leading activists within human rights and political organizations in the province Negros Occidental. Five months after her arrest, a further arrest warrant was issued for Alvarez while still in detention for a robbery committed by suspected members of the NPA in a fish farm. A further month later, she received a warning from the military that she would face additional charges if she did not cooperate with the military.

In October 2013, Alvarez filed a Petition for Bail. On July 16, 2014, the Petition was finally heard and on July 22, after 20 months in prison, Alvarez was released on Bail. The court case however is still ongoing.

On March 4, 2020 Alvarez and eight of the co-accused were finally acquitted on the alleged murder charge of Lt. Archie Polenzo for lack of evidence. The supposed former rebel, who had testified as witness for the prosecution in court against Alvarez and the co-accused, withdraw his confession partially according to the court decision. The court classified his testimony as untrustworthy.

The acquittal of Alvarez and the co-accused can hardly be marked as a success. The proceedings were delayed for years, in Alvarez case, for instance, since her illegal arrest in 2012. She spent these years partially imprisoned and permanently with the Damocles’ sword of an erratic and politically instrumentalized legal system over her head. The futility of the accusation, where 43 persons were charged with the murder of one person, was always unarguable. The detentions not only intended to prevent the work of the defendants but also to intimidate relatives, sympathizers, and the public and to spread a climate of insecurity among other activists that they could at any time become victims of arbitrary defamation campaigns and trumped-up charges.

To counteract this intention, it is important to notice that cases like the one of Alvarez and the co-accused do not constitute legitimate legal proceedings. These proceedings are rather politically motivated with the objective to intimidate the civil society. As a result, Alvarez‘ case is exemplary for the progressive weakening of democratic principles through and institutions in the Philippines.