Worrying cases of enforced disappearances of activists

After about 17 days in the custody of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the two abducted environmental activists, Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamayo, were released. The two activists were abducted by unidentifiable men on September 2, 2023, as they prepared for consultations with communities affected by land reclamation projects in Orion, Bataan province. During a press conference on 19 September 2023, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) presented the two forcibly disappeared young activists. The NTF-ELCAC said Castro and Tamayo had sought the help of the military and “voluntarily surrendered,” meaning they allegedly admitted their affiliation with the communist rebel group, the New People’s Army (NPA).

However, the two activists countered the military’s statements about their disappearance, saying that they were abducted by soldiers against their will and held in custody for days. The NTF-ELCAC then accused Castro and Tamayo of being “deceived” by the two activists at their own press conference. The two announced that they will continue their struggle against land reclamation projects in Manila Bay and will continue to advocate for the rights of those affected. These 22 or so land reclamation projects by the Philippine government aim to create new land mass along Manila Bay – from Metro-Manila to Calabarzon – by filling in rocks, cement, clay, or dirt from nearby waters. Strong criticism is voiced, especially by environmental groups, as the damage to the environment and local communities caused by such land reclamation projects is considered highly problematic.

Cases of enforced disappearances of human rights defenders seem to be increasing under the government of President Marcos. Cordilleran activists Gene de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan, who have been missing since April 28, 2023, remain missing despite continuous public calls by their relatives and friends for their release.

The acquittal of imprisoned former military general Jovito Palparan on October 6, 2023, in the case of the Manalo brothers, Raymond and Reynaldo, who were forcibly disappeared by Palparan on February 14, 2006, and tortured in different military camps for over 18 months, emphasizes the continuing “culture of impunity” in the Philippines. The court decided to acquit them because the identification of the men who abducted the Manalo brothers was not clear enough. Human rights group Karapatan strongly condemned Palparan’s acquittal, especially because the testimonies of the Manalo brothers have been affirmed before by different courts as well as the Supreme Court.

Palparan was already sentenced in 2018 to 40 years in prison for the kidnapping and unlawful detention of two female students, Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, in June 2006. Raymond Manalo’s testimony was crucial in Palparan’s conviction in the case of the two female students. Manalo confirmed that he had met Cadapan and Empeño in a military camp and even witnessed their brutal torture. The two students had told him about rapes by soldiers and the continuous, cruel torture – also by Palaparan himself.

In Bongabong, Mindoro Oriental province, three young indigenous rights defenders, namely Job Abednego David, Peter del Monte Jr., and Alia Encela, were disappeared on September 19, 2023, according to Karapatan-Southern Tagalog. According to Karapatan, the three activists were abducted by the 4th Infantry Battalion under the 203rd Infantry Brigade of the AFP in Bongabong. The AFP, on the other hand, denied that the three were abducted by state security forces but are in military custody because they are alleged NPA members.

Raoul Manuel of the Kabataan party expressed great concern about the abductions of young activists. According to Manuel, at least 15 cases of enforced disappearances have been reported since President Marcos Jr. took office on June 30, 2022, eight of which were young activists.


Photo © Raffy Lerma

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