MANILA (3rd UPDATE) - Human rights groups called on the Philippine government to investigate what they said was the use of "lethal force" during police raids on Sunday that left at least 9 activists dead.
The raids in 4 provinces in the Calabarzon region resulted in the death of an environmental activist as well as a coordinator of left-wing group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, among others, and resulted in the arrest of 4 others, activist groups said.
"These raids appear to be part of a coordinated plan by the authorities to raid, arrest, and even kill activists in their homes and offices," Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
These incidents, he said, were "clearly part of the government's increasingly brutal counter-insurgency campaign."
"The fundamental problem is (that) this campaign no longer makes any distinction between armed rebels and noncombatant activists, labor leaders, and rights defenders."
The United Nations has warned in a report that "red-tagging," or labeling people and groups as communists or terrorists, and incitement to violence have been rife in the Southeast Asian nation.
"The Philippine government should act now to investigate the use of lethal force in these raids, stop the mayhem and killings that has gone hand in hand with the practice of red-tagging," Robertson said.
Sunday's raids, which human rights group Karapatan condemned, came 2 days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the police and military to "kill" communist rebels and "ignore human rights".
"Nothing could be more apt than calling this day a ‘Bloody Sunday,’" Karapatan's Cristina Palabay said.
Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, head of an anti-rebel task force, told Reuters the raids were "legitimate law enforcement operations," and authorities acted on the basis of search warrants for possession of firearms and explosives.
"As usual, these groups are so quick in assuming that the subjects were activists and that they were killed. If (the) motive was to kill them they should all be dead but there were those who did not resist arrest so they were collared," Parlade told Reuters in a phone message.
Laguna Provincial Police Office spokesperson Chit Gaoiran confirmed to ABS-CBN News the simultaneous serving of search warrants in different provinces in the region, which led to the arrest of 6 individuals - 3 from Laguna province and another 3 from Rizal province.
Gaoiran denied that the operations came following Duterte's remarks last Friday.
"Nagkataon lang po na ito po ay nangyari sa panahon na may statement ang ating mahal na Pangulo. Definitely di po ito nangyari overnight. Ito po ay search efforts po ito so talaga pong vinalidate ang information bago natin inapply ang search warrant," Gaoiran told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
(This just so happened at a time when the President made such statements. It definitely did not happen overnight. These are search efforts so we validated information before we applied the search warrant.)
The Calabarzon Regional Police also said 9 were killed in the operation: 1 from Cavite province, 2 from Batangas province and 6 from Rizal province.
Nine others were also reported to be "at large".
Authorities have yet to identify those who were killed and arrested, but Karapatan said among those who were killed in the operation were Manny Asuncion, coordinator of Bayan Cavite.
Chai Lemita-Evangelista and Ariel Evangelista of Nasugbu, Batangas, and Melvin Dasigao and Mark Lee Coros Bacasno from Rizal province were also reportedly killed.
Gaoiran, meanwhile, said the arrest warrants were issued because the police targets had "loose firearms and explosives."
He added that those who were slain fought back or "nanlaban," which led the police to fire at them.
The regional police chief also denied that the killings were carried out after Duterte ordered state security forces to kill communist insurgents.
In a statement Monday, former Vice President Jejomar Binay slammed the killings as " wanton disregard for the rule of law and due process."
"Ngayon, aktibista ang hinuhuli at pinapatay. Maaaring bukas, ikaw na ang target. Hihintayin pa ba nating mangyari yon?" he said.
(Now, activists are being arrested and killed. Tomorrow, you might be the target. Should we wait for that to happen?)
Binay described the "nanlaban" narrative, in which supposedly armed suspects are killed after resisting arrest with state forces, as "lumang tugtugin" or rehash.
He expressed concern that the room for legitimate dissent was " narrowing with each passing day" and " being equated to armed insurgency."
"It is imperative that our rights and freedoms remain protected, otherwise we might see the day when any criticism of government would be considered as a criminal act," Binay added. - With reports from Jeffrey Hernaez, ABS-CBN News and Karen Lema, Reuters