Group calls for justice for women HR defenders

WOMEN human rights defenders led by Tanggol Bayi, an organization of women human rights defenders, today gathered at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani to commemorate the International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders this November 29, 2010.

Cristina Palabay, Tanggol Bayi convenor, said this year’s commemoration in the Philippines highlights the call for justice for women human rights defenders who were victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances under the Arroyo government. During the Arroyo presidency, 153 women were victims of extrajudicial killings, 31 of enforced disappearance, while 63 women political prisoners who are victims of illegal arrest and detention continue to languish in jails and detention centers.

“Not one among the perpetrators of these gruesome summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and illegal arrests has been made accountable by the government of Pres. Benigno Aquino III. Within five months of Aquino’s term, there have been two women victims of extrajudicial killings already. This is among the pitfalls of a government that espouses change and advocacy for human rights, while it does not render justice for the victims of rights violations and continues the implementation of Oplan Bantay Laya, the brutal counter-insurgency policy of the previous regime. For women human rights defenders, nothing has changed especially with human rights situation under the Aquino government,” Palabay said.

Evangeline Hernandez, mother of slain human rights defender and campus journalist Benjaline “Beng” Hernandez, shared her family’s quest for justice for Beng, including the complaint they filed in the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Beng was killed by paramilitary forces led by the Sgt. Antonio Torilla of the 12th Special Forces Company/7th Airborne Battalion of the Philippine Army last April 5, 2002 in the Arakan Valley in Davao. As the Deputy Secretary General of Karapatan Southern Mindanao, she was conducting a month-long research on the peasant situation in the Arakan Valley, as a follow-up to the fact-finding mission on the Tababa massacre which she spearheaded in the said area. Her body bore bullet wounds in the neck, upper right chest and left palm. Her skull was crushed, seemingly by a blunt object, and her mouth, jaw, and teeth were disfigured from the exiting wounds from the neck.

The family filed a multiple murder case against the perpetrators. Only Torilla was named respondent while the charges against the others were dismissed. The local court in Kidapawan handling the case granted bail to Torilla and the junior military officer remains in active service in the Philippine Army.

In March 2006, Beng’s mother Evangeline decided to file a case against the Philippine government, as a state party, at the UNHRC under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Eight years after the murder of Beng, the UNHRC has found the Philippine government responsible for her death and “concludes that there has been a violation of article 6, paragraph 1, of the ICCPR.”  The committee said the government violated its obligations to provide effective remedies to resolve Beng’s case, as required by the covenant.

“During that same time we received news of the UNHRC findings, we learned that the respondent Torilla was acquitted by the Kidapawan court. There are no indications yet of the Phil. Government’s, under the new Aquino administration, implementation of the UNHRC recommendations,” Hernandez said.

Rep. Liza Maza, convenor of Tanggol Bayi, said that the threats, harassment and rights violations against human rights defenders (HRDs) continue under the present administration. Maza accounted that according to reports of Karapatan, there were 3,280 victims of threats, harassment and intimidation, including HRDs who were charged with fabricated cases, while there are 16 victims of torture among the 23 who were illegally arrested since July 2010.

“The recent case of four HRDs in Bicol, who were illegally arrested, charged with trumped up cases and are currently imprisoned is an example of the continuing pattern of attacks against HRDs. Their case is no different from the case of Morong 43, the forty three health workers who are on their tenth month of detention this December. This practice should stop,” the woman leader asserted.

Maza herself was among those who were charged with trumped up cases of murder and rebellion under the Arroyo government. Charged with rebellion during the state of national emergency in 2006, Maza, together with the rest of the Batasan 5, were placed under protective custody in the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court ruled for the dismissal of charges against them in 2007, saying that charges against them were politically motivated.

Maza said that Tanggol Bayi will be pushing for the enactment of a national legislation for the recognition, defense and protection of HRDs, as the Philippines is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. D’Jay Lazaro

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