MANILA (UPDATED) — Rights groups are casting doubt on the narrative on two young environmentalists who had been reported missing since September 2 and whom authorities said Friday had surrendered to a military unit in Bulacan on September 12.
Activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano had "left the movement of their own free will," according to National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya.
In a joint statement, AKAP Ka Manila Bay, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Promotion for Church Peoples’ Response, and KARAPATAN, said sworn statements attributed to the two were not made in the presence of counsel of their choice and may have been made under duress.
"With their condition, they were not in a position to refuse to be represented by counsel provided them by their military custodian, and to assert to be represented by a counsel of their own choice or engaged by their families," the groups, which had conducted a fact-finding mission on the alleged abduction, said.
The groups are legal organizations but have been accused of ties to the armed communist movement. Activist groups have rejected these accusations as baseless and untrue.
Bataan police said the two had sought the help of an acquaintance to arrange their surrender to the Army's 70th Infantry Battalion, which is headquartered in Bulacan. But the rights groups said either of the activists had easier ways of reaching out to authorities.
In their joint statement, they also said the claim that Castro and Tamano surrendered and had not been abducted "[remains] seriously in doubt".
They said no copies of the supposed affidavits were made public and authorities only showed "brief video clips of Jonila and Jhed...at the press conference."
They added: "That they were not personally presented during the press conference reveals a lot of things. The most obvious of which is that the [National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict] and the [Philippine National Police] are not prepared to present them for questioning by the media where they could be asked questions regarding the circumstances of their abduction."
Authorities said the two are in a safe house and that their parents have access to them.
The rights groups also pointed out that authorities did not say that Castro and Tamano were facing charges and should be released.
"If they are facing charges, then they should be presented in court and remanded to a regular detention facility," they said.
AFP: There was no abduction
Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) denied involvement in the supposed abduction of the environmental activists.
“There was no abduction,” Col. Medel Aguilar, AFP spokesperson, insisted in a forum in Quezon City on Saturday. “Humingi lang sila ng tulong sa mga kakilala nila para itago sila sa kasamahan nila na gusto silang ibalik sa kilusan.”
Aguilar added that the two sought the assistance of some people to connect them to authorities because they wanted to surrender since September 1.
He said the activists are with the government now, although he did not specify with which office.
Aguilar also claimed that Castro has been a member of the underground movement, allegedly for more than four years.
Castro's mother Rosalie last week called for her release, saying her daughter is just a volunteer for groups seeking to help fishermen and others struck by calamities.
"Kung sino man po ang may hawak sa anak ko, sana ilabas niyo na po kasi wala naman talagang ginagawang mali ang anak ko. Gusto niya lang tumulong. Sana wag niyo naman pong pagisipan ng masama ang anak namin," she said then.
— With a report from Victoria Tulad, ABS-CBN News