MANILA (UPDATE) — Two male Aetas who were the first to be charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) allegedly suffered “horrendous torture” while under military custody, a lawyer’s group said Friday, while the military said the "rehashed" charges have been disproven.
Lawyer Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), said the accused, who were earlier identified as Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, were allegedly forced to eat human waste by soldiers.
“Before a case was filed on Sept. 11 in the fiscal of Olongapo, they were tortured, they were tied, they were even hung upside down. They were made to drink a liquid with pepper. They were threatened to be killed. They were fooled that some of them were shot at close range,” he told ANC’s “Matters of Fact.”
The military in September had denied the allegations of "feeding of feces, illegal detention and physical beatings” of the Aetas. It reiterated this Friday and said the fresh charges were "rehashed."
Gurung, Ramos and 2 other female Aetas, who were suspected to be New People’s Army (NPA) rebels, were arrested in an encounter in San Marcelino, Zambales on Aug. 21. They were held under military custody until Aug. 26.
For the NUPL, what was done to the Aetas can also be considered an act of terror.
"You can even argue that what the military did to them reportedly are also an act of terrorism. This proves the broad and vague definition of terrorism can't be contorted to fix this narrative," he said.
Olalia said the Aetas could at most be charged with murder and not terrorism because those who are not participating in the hostilities were protected under the international humanitarian law, which regulates the conduct of war.
The NUPL maintained the accused were innocent who were accosted while fleeing from the “intense military operations.”
“We have affidavits and accounts that these Aetas were unarmed civilians. They were in the place where they should be. You know very well, the Indigenous Peoples, they reside in the mountains and because the military probably couldn’t run after the alleged NPA, they bent their ire on the unarmed civilians,” he said.
Olalia also belied allegations the Aetas were recruiting children in Zambales to join the armed struggle.
“As far we know, these are Aetas, these are ordinary civilians… They are not part of the NPA, neither are they supporters of NPA. They are ordinary IP in Zambales,” he said.
Issue of torture
Brig. Gen. Andrew Costelo, Commander of the 703rd Army Brigade, on Friday said the Aeta's accusations of torture against the soldiers were a repeat of earlier allegations.
"The issue of torture is a rehash of what they tried to raise against our soldiers before, but they were not able to prove anything," Costelo said.
He described the soldiers as "professional and dedicated to the people."
"The concern at [hand] right now is legal issue on the cases against the 2 suspects."
Gurung and Ramos are facing terrorism charges for violating Section 4(a) of Republic Act 11479 for allegedly firing and shooting at soldiers during the clash.
Section 4(a) of the ATA refers to a mode of committing terrorism “intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endangers a person’s life.”
The definition of terrorism under Section 4 of the ATA is one of the most contentious provisions of the new law, assailed for the vagueness of the language and the breadth of its scope, which many rights advocates fear could curtail due process, equal protection, freedom of expression, among other rights.
Thirty-seven petitions are currently pending before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the ATA.
Based on an advisory a petitioner received Friday, the SC has set the oral arguments on January 19, 2021. It also enumerated issues to be discussed and scheduled a preliminary conference on Nov. 26.