Abduction of activists sparks calls to surface desaparecidos

Gaea Katreena Cabico – Philstar.com

September 20, 2023 | 2:45pm

MANILA, Philippines — A human rights organization called on the government to locate victims of enforced disappearances and investigate the practice of forced surrenders after two environmental activists revealed that they were abducted by the military. 

Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano were finally reunited with their families Tuesday, hours after saying at a press conference hosted by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict that they were kidnapped by the military and did not surrender voluntarily to authorities. 

In a statement Wednesday, Karapatan said the case of Castro and Tamano should push the government to strengthen investigation and efforts to find and surface all victims of enforced disappearances or desaparecidos. 

Karapatan documented eight cases of enforced disappearances during the first year of the Marcos Jr. administration. 

The Commission on Human Rights earlier called the government to resolve all cases of desaparecidos “to curb the impunity that enables human rights violations to continue.”

Karapatan also called for an independent probe into attempts of the government to portray activists as “surrenderees.” 

Security officials claimed that Castro and Tamano sought the government’s help to leave the communist movement. The two are volunteers helping coastal communities impacted by development projects around Manila.

“Following what Jonila and Jhed have very bravely disclosed right in the middle of the NTF-ELCAC’s press conference, it is high time that the truth about the forced or fake surrender shenanigans of the NTF-ELCAC are scrutinized,” Karapatan said. 

It noted that this practice “forces activists to renounce their pro-people advocacies, disaffiliate from, and misrepresent, their organizations.”

The abduction of Castro and Tamano highlights the risks faced by Filipino environmental defenders. For the 10th straight year, the Philippines was named the deadliest country in Asia for protectors of nature by watchdog Global Witness.

NTF-ELCAC: ‘We’re hoodwinked’

The NTF-ELCAC must be held accountable for the abduction, enforced disappearance, and fake surrender of Castro and Tamano, Karapatan said. Illegal arrest, detention, and abduction are punishable under the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012.

The task force, which was set up by former president Rodrigo Duterte, has frequently accused government critics of being members or supporters of communist insurgency, without providing evidence. 

Karapatan stressed that NTF-ELCAC’s “malicious and baseless accusations, harmful rhetoric and activities against ordinary folks and activist groups and individuals have enabled and encouraged the commission of countless human rights violations.”

In a statement, NTF-ELCAC said they were “hoodwinked” by the two activists. 

“We felt betrayed,” it said, adding that it stood by the reports of the military and the police on the “surrender” of Castro and Tamano. 

“Whatever caused their sudden change of heart is beyond us. Earlier engagements by task force officials with the two students regarding the veracity and truthfulness of their affidavits were convincing enough to merit their public appearance,” NTF-ELCAC said.

But a defiant Castro said they were forced by the military to issue an affidavit. 


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