Task force on EJKs to probe 'Bloody Sunday' killings of activists

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 08 2021 02:36 PM | Updated as of Mar 08 2021 03:46 PM

Human rights and advocacy groups hold a rally at the Commission on Human Rights office in Diliman, Quezon City to protest the killing of 9 activists in raids conducted by state security forces. Courtesy fisherfolk group PAMALAKAYA

Task force won’t meet until 3rd or 4th week of March

MANILA — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday said the inter-agency task force on extrajudicial killings will probe the death of 9 activist leaders on Sunday in what human rights groups called “bloody Sunday.”

The raids in four provinces in Calabarzon also resulted in the arrest of four others, activist groups said.

“Kung mga activist ang mga involved na may mga advocacies whether it be trade unionism or peasant associations or organizations or IPs, 'yung mga may specific advocacies, we definitely will include them within the jurisdiction,” Guevarra told ABS-CBN News following an event at the Department of Justice.

“They will fall within the jurisdiction of the AO 35 task force on EJKs and we’re actually meeting this month, this inter-agency committee or task force so we can address all of this growing number [of killings],” he added.

The AO 35 task force is an inter-agency panel intended to probe extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave human rights violations involving activists and rights defenders.

Formed in 2012, the AO 35 Task Force is limited to prosecuting politically-motivated killings.

It is headed by the Department of Justice and its members include the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

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Rights groups and lawmakers have called for a government probe into the deaths of activist leaders, comparing them to the controversial “Oplan Tokhang” operations in the country’s drug war which led to the deaths of thousands of drug suspects.

Among the progressive leaders killed were: 

  • Manny Asuncion, coordinator of Bayan Cavite, in the office of the Workers’ Assistance Center in Dasmariñas, Cavite
  • fisherfolk leaders Chai Lemita-Evangelista and Ariel Evangelista in Nasugbu, Batangas
  • Melvin Dasigao and Mark Lee Coros Bacasno of the urban group Sikkad Montalban in Montalban, Rizal province

Police said nine were killed without releasing names but progressive groups have yet to identify 4 others.


3RD OR 4TH WEEK OF MARCH

The probe however would have to wait until towards the end of the month when the AO 35 task force convenes, Guevarra said.

“Maybe in the 3rd or 4th week of March. It’s difficult to convene ng person to person because of what’s happening but we have to, we need to and we are going to have this meeting,” he said.

“We are building the agenda for that meeting. We need to call it because of what’s happening,” he said.

Guevarra ruled out issuing a department order directing the NBI to immediately conduct its own probe, saying the NBI is already part of the AO 35 task force.

“More specifically, I have to take a look at itong incidents you mentioned yung kahapon kamo. But basically dahil maraming agencies ang ma-iinvolve dyan, we would rather discuss it muna doon sa inter-agency task force on EJKs, torture and other grave violations of human rights. We’ll start with that,” he said.

That meeting will also tackle the killing of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant and peasant leader Randall Echanis and activist Zara Alvarez.

Echanis was killed by unknown assailants in his rented home in Quezon City in August last year.

The Commission on Human Rights later said the 71-year-old was tortured to death based on an independent autopsy of his body.

Alvarez, meanwhile, was shot multiple times on the chest outside her apartment in Bacolod City also in August last year.

The Philippine government had showcased its AO 35 task force before the United Nations Human Rights Council last year which, according to the justice secretary, puts prosecutors at the top of the investigation of cases to ensure “objectivity” especially in cases where law enforcers are themselves accused of abuses.

But rights groups have lamented AO 35 task force’s low conviction rate with only 13 convictions since it was created in 2012. In contrast, 127 alleged perpetrators have been cleared out of 385 cases as of December 2019.


GUEVARRA ‘DISAPPOINTED’

Sunday’s killings came less than 2 weeks since Guevarra made a stunning admission before the UNHRC about police lapses of their own protocol in drug operations, particularly, the lack of investigations into recovered weapons in alleged “nanlaban” or “fought back” cases, where suspects allegedly resisted arrests.

The PNP has used a similar justification for the killings on Sunday.

“I was really hoping that with that statement that I made before the UN, our law enforcers would be sort of more or less be more careful in their operations but these things continue to happen,” he said of the deaths during police operations, saying there’s a need to sit down with law enforcers.

“I’m quite disappointed kasi nga hindi nabawasan ano notwithstanding na sinabi na natin 'yan before an international body. I don’t want to prejudge our law enforcement agencies if they had to do what they needed to do. We don’t know the exact circumstances pertaining to each and every case that has happened. But nonetheless, kapag may mga namamatay, we have to do something about it,” he added.

DUTERTE CONNECTION

Guevarra however would not want to “speculate” about a supposed connection between Sunday’s killings and the statements President Duterte made in his speech in Cagayan de Oro City on Friday where he ordered state forces to kill all communist rebels.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Ferdinand Gaite told ANC early Monday that Duterte’s “enabling statements” is pushing the military and the police “to go on a killing streak, a rampage, a massacre.”

“I cannot really speculate if may connection siya (killings) doon sa sinabi ng Presidente,” Guevarra said.

“The President has always been vocal about yung fight against these communist-terrorist groups so nandun na yun a long time ago e. So I cannot really say na dahil doon sa sinabi ng Presidente 2 days ago, e nagkaroon ng additional na incidents like that because that has been the President’s policy ever since,” he explained.

“So let’s see what really are the facts. Kasi mahirap magsabi na it’s because of what the President said. We don’t really know the facts as yet. So the best thing to do, really, is to conduct a fact-finding investigation of what happened. So that’s only the time that we can probably make a conclusion that baka extrajudicial talaga yan or talaga namang legitimate yung operations. We cannot make a judgment at this time.”