MANILA – Activist Zara Alvarez had feared for her life. She sought protection from harassment and red-tagging, supposedly by state agents, from the Supreme Court, but she was killed before the court could rule on her request.
Among her last words in her June 2019 sworn statement:
“I have also experienced being detained for crimes I did not commit and I fear that it may happen again or I might be killed like what happened to the many farmers of Negros as well as Tatay Toto and Atty. Ben Ramos.”
Alvarez was walking just outside her apartment in Bacolod City on Aug. 17 when she was shot multiple times on the chest (thorax). She was 39.
On Tuesday, rights group Karapatan submitted her affidavit to the SC as it urged the high court to act on their appeal to reverse the Court of Appeals’ decision to junk their writ of amparo and habeas data petition.
Alvarez and Karapatan, along with other activists, filed the petition for the issuance of the protective writs in May 2019 to prevent the attacks from happening, which they blamed on years of rampant red-tagging and terrorist-labelling of Philippine rights defenders.
They said what made matters worse was President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) terrorists, the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), and the deployment of more soldiers and police to Bicol, Samar and Negros in a bid to suppress “lawless violence and acts of terror.”
But a little over a month later, the CA not only denied them the chance to present evidence due to a rule requiring petitioners to attach judicial affidavits to their petition, it also eventually junked the petition for lack of substantial evidence and failure to comply with the rules.
In July last year, Karapatan appealed to the SC, which has yet to act on the petition.
LINK BETWEEN RED-TAGGING AND KILLINGS
For Karapatan, the link between red-tagging and terrorist-labelling on the one hand, and the subsequent killings on the other, is clear to see.
As a community health worker and paralegal engaged in human rights work, Alvarez was branded by the military as an “NPA front” and had been declared a persona non grata in one village.
She said in her affidavit that she began receiving threats after her arrest for murder, which was later dismissed for lack of evidence, but not after spending 9 months in detention.
In 2018, Alvarez was included in the list of 649 names the Department of Justice submitted to a Manila court as part of a proscription case, along with 2 other slain peace consultants Randy Malayao and Randall Echanis.
Malayao was shot inside a bus in Nueva Ecija in January 2019, while Echanis was stabbed to death inside his apartment in Quezon City just a week before Alvarez was killed.
All 3 of them were eventually cleared and the court declared only 2 others in the list had ties to the CPP-NPA. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra would later admit that the list, submitted by his predecessor Vitaliano Aguirre, was not verified.
But Karapatan, in its manifestation, said the threats against Alvarez continued.
Her photo was included in a tarpaulin placed in front of a public market identifying her as a CPP-NPA-National Democratic Front (NDF) personality, along with Bernardino “Tatay Toto” Patigas, who was also shot dead in Escalante City in April 2019.
Alvarez was also the subject of death threats, identified in text messages as the number 1 target. These messages were received in July last year and shortly after her death.
She is the second witness in the group's court petition to have been killed. The first, 22-year-old Ryan Hubilla, was shot dead in June last year, days before he was to travel to Manila to execute a judicial affidavit.
“Clearly, the red-tagging that preceded the deaths of Alvarez, Hubila and Patigas was not an empty threat. It was, in truth and in fact, a notice from the State that once it publicly classified the victims as ‘communist terrorists,’ the latter began to be regarded as legitimate targets of attack from State forces,” Karapatan said.
“With respect, the causality between Alvarez’s inclusion in the rogues gallery of ‘communist terrorists’ and her dastardly killing is too palpable to ignore," it added.
"Her death proves that being subjected to red-tagging and terrorist-labeling constitutes an actual threat, and not merely one of supposition or with the likelihood of happening.”
Since 2007, the United Nations has raised concerns over the vilification, arbitrary detention, harassment, enforced disappearances and killings of rights defenders in the country. The Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was able to verify more 208 defenders killed between January 2015 and December 2019.
Karapatan cited a similar figure during Duterte’s term, which began mid-2016.
A recent UN human rights report found that a heavy-handed focus on security threats and illegal drugs have led to serious human rights violations in the country.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the widespread red-tagging by State actors suggests that Duterte’s public comments may have incited violence – encouraging, even ordering human rights impunity – and may violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Various international organizations have called for an independent, international probe into the human rights situation in the country.
The International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor is currently conducting its preliminary examination of the situation in the Philippines.
But the Philippine government continues to insist that the local mechanisms are working, foreclosing the need for international probes.
The DOJ said Tuesday special investigation teams of the AO 35 Task Force probing the Echanis and Alvarez killings have now “started their work.”
A team is set to meet with the Echanis family this week but DOJ spokesperson Markk Perete said they will leave it to the team leader whether to get in touch with colleagues of Alvarez in Negros who are also receiving threats.
“We will have to assess if these are related to the case, otherwise these may be the subject of a separate investigation,” he said.
“We leave the manner of investigation to the team leader. We also encourage all parties, the colleagues of Alvarez included, to participate in this investigation,” he added.
Perete later clarified the AO 35 Secretariat instructed the team leaders to “get in touch with all relevant persons.”
It took 15 months between the time Alvarez sought protection from the SC and the her death. Karapatan said she could have been given protection through the privilege of amparo and habeas data had the court acted on it.
“It is too late now,” Karapatan said.