Government ramps up red-tagging, gets broad-range ripostes

Putting to work its National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, the Duterte government since last month has ramped up its red-tagging campaign against human rights defenders, militant people’s organizations and alliances, and left-leaning candidates in the May 13 elections.

Instantly the ripostes were vigorous – denials, condemnations – from a broad range of personalities and organizations here and overseas, including from the Commission on Human Rights. The CHR has denounced the “harassment and vilification of lawyers” as a “new trend of attacking progressive rights groups.” It called on the government to ensure the protection specifically of members of the Union of People’s Lawyers of Mindanao (UPLM) and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).

The National Task Force (NTF) was formed through Executive Order No. 70, which President Duterte signed on Dec. 4, 2018. Headed by Duterte as chair and his national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. as vice chair, the NTF is mandated to ensure the effective implementation of a “whole-of-nation” approach aimed at ending the 50-year-old armed revolutionary movement, led by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA).

On Feb. 14, a NTF-initiated government delegation was sent to the meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UN WGEID) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its purpose: to ask the UN WGEID to delist 625 cases of enforced disappearances in the Philippines, mostly attributed to state security forces, documented by human rights organizations from 1975 (under Marcos’ martial law dictatorship) to 2012 (first two years of the P-Noy Aquino administration).

The delegation claimed that the Philippine government had already put in place a “strong legal framework and institutional mechanisms” to deal with the enforced disappearances issue. However, human rights groups led by Karapatan urged the UN body to reject the government request and its arguments for the delisting. Karapatan asserted that the two laws invoked by the Duterte administration – the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012 (RA 10353) and the Human Rights Violations Recognition and Reparations Act of 2013 (RA 10368) were not state-initiated. These were enacted, it pointed out, mainly due to the efforts of the people, relatives of the victims, human rights groups, and concerned legislators.

Most pointedly, Karapatan told the UN that, to this day, the government has continually denied any role in enforced disappearances, such as the widely publicized case of Jonas Burgos in 2007 and most recently (September 2018), the case of Joey Torres Jr., Bayan Muna coordinator in Nueva Ecija.

Piggy-backing on the UN WGEID meeting, the NTF sent a team to visit diplomatic offices of various countries and aid organizations in Europe, campaigning for the withdrawal or denial of funding and other forms of support to human rights organizations and defenders in the Philippines, tagging the latter as “fronts” of the CPP-NPA. Two officials of the Presidential Communications Operations Office were with the NTF team, PCOO chief Martin Andanar acknowledged.

Among others, here are other instances of red-tagging in the month of February alone:

On Feb. 23, Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) Obispo Maximo (Supreme Bishop) Rhee Timbang issued a pastoral letter strongly denouncing a flyer distributed in Cagayan de Oro City and Northern Mindanao. The flyer “maliciously and irresponsibly red-tagg(ed) our clergy,” the pastoral letter states, naming IFI bishops Felixberto Calang and Antonio Ablon, priests Rolando Abejo, Khen Apus and Chris Ablon, and “some prominent partners of the IFI in its work.”

“We again cry foul to these baseless accusations and condemn in the strongest terms the continuing attacks on our clergy and the IFI itself,” the letter says, along with the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), (UPLM), and (NUPL), which are “partners in the IFI’s work of prophetic witness, social advocacy and solidarity and engagements with the peasants, fisherfolk, workers, urban poor, lumad communities, and the Moro people.”

All these activities, the pastoral letter adds, “are in consonance with (IFI’s) mission and fidelity to its history enriched by the bold, courageous and fearless witnesses of Apo [Gregorio] Aglipay and Don Belong [Isabelo delos Reyes] and other heroes of the Filipino church in the nationalist and revolutionary tradition of the Filipino people.”

Addressing President Duterte, the IFI pastoral letter warns that the red-tagging “serves as green light for the neutralization and termination” of all those the state security forces mark “wrongly as terrorists,” thus endangering the lives of IFI clergy and partners. It urges Duterte to “make history by standing for his people, by directing the GRP peace panel to resume peace talks [with the NDFP] and resolve the basic problems of our society that breed insurgency.”

Human rights and labor lawyer Beverly Selim-Musni, who with her two lawyer-daughters are tagged in the flyer along with the IFI clergy, spoke loud and clear: “The bias of my daughters for the poor and the oppressed is distinct, much more [it’s] my pride, since they have inherited my compassion.” Their father, Oscar Musni, she pointed out, was a member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and a political detainee under the Marcos dictatorship.

“The attacks against lawyers under the administration of President Duterte, a lawyer himself, are not new and not only in Northern Mindanao,” Selim-Musni noted. “Moreover, the attacks against the brave lawyers who have chosen the hard battle of fighting repressive state mechanisms is consistent with the history of our country’s repressive governments.”

The courageous stand taken by progressive lawyers since the time of Marcos has led to the sacrifice of the lives and liberty of many of them. After the slaying of human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos in Negros Occidental last November, the CHR called for steps to prevent another killing. At least 78 lawyers have signed a petition asking the Supreme Court to ensure a “thorough, prompt, impartial, and independent investigation” into the killings of 34 lawyers so far under the Duterte administration.

The red-tagging has also formed part of the Duterte regime’s avowed campaign to prevent progressive candidates from winning in the May 13 mid-term elections. On Feb. 28, copies of a leaflet bearing the face of Makabayan Coalition senatorial bet Neri Colmenares began circulating in Manila. It depicts Colmenares, with a red hammer-and-sickle sign on his forehead, as allegedly making statements maligning the Liberal Party’s Otso Diretso senatorial slate.

There is of course absolutely no truth to this despicable stunt, as we shall see in the next two days.

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Published in Philippine Star
March 2, 2019

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