Human rights defenders decry ‘trumped-up’ terrorism charges

Story by A.J.L.

Four human rights defenders from the Southern Tagalog region reasserted their calls to junk the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, following baseless raps filed against them under the said law.

In a press conference at the Commission on Human Rights on Monday, Oct. 9, the accused rights workers held back tears as they spoke about the agony they have to endure while waiting for the resolution of their cases.

Among them is University of the Philippines (UP) third Student Regent nominee John Peter Angelo “Jpeg” Garcia, who also heads the local chapter of the progressive organization, Youth Advocates for Peace with Justice, in UP Los Banos.

Ang hirap tanggapin na kami pang mga kabataan na lumalaban para sa karapatan ‘yung tinatalikuran ng justice system. Bakit po ganoon? Wala naman po kaming ginagawang masama,” Garcia said.

Last September, he was implicated by the military in the case of fellow Southern Tagalog activist Hailey Pecayo, who was accused of being a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) and violating Sections 4a and 4d of the ATA.

The cited provisions defined acts of terrorism, particularly those intended to endanger a person’s life, as well as possessing and supplying different kinds of weapons.

Various youth formations across the UP System have since denounced these accusations, arguing that the ATA only “intensifies fascist attacks” against progressive entities.

Sana maintindihan ng administrasyon na wala kaming ibang hangarin kundi i-uphold ang human rights at panagutin ang mga human rights violations sa Southern Tagalog,” Garcia said in the press conference.

During the height of the pandemic, former President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the controversial ATA, giving the government authority to decide who are considered terrorists and how to act against them.

Despite numerous petitions to scrap the said legislation, the Supreme Court only ruled two parts of the ATA unconstitutional, therefore leaving the law binding and executory.

Meanwhile, also present at the press conference was Anakbayan Southern Tagalog coordinator and UPLB student Kenneth Rementilla, alongside fellow activist and church worker Jasmin Rubia, who were both accused by the military of providing “material support to terrorists” pertaining to alleged NPA members in Taysan, Batangas.

The military continues to call the NPA as “terrorists” despite a 2022 ruling from a Manila regional trial court dismissing the state’s proscription case to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm as terrorist groups.

Further, Karapatan Southern Tagalog have already debunked the allegation against Rementilla and Rubia, asserting that the activists only participated in the fact-finding mission on the death of nine-year-old Kyllene Casao and farmer Maximino Digno in Batangas last July 2022.

‘Di ko na alam kung hanggang kailan itong terror na nararanasan namin. Gusto lang naman po namin magkaroon ng normal na buhay; makapagpatuloy sa human rights work, sa pag-aaral. ‘Di [namin] magagawa ‘yun kung meron kaming hinaharap na trumped-up charges,” Rementilla said

In total, there are at least 17 instances where the ATA was weaponized to “falsely” incriminate progressive groups and individuals in the Calabarzon region, said Defend Southern Tagalog spokesperson Charm Maranan. 

Community testimonials

Close family members and colleagues of the accused human rights workers also joined the press conference to disprove the claims promoted by the state and military.

Garcia’s father, Jose, expressed disbelief over the accusations against his son, stating that Jpeg only wants to defend the rights of his fellow youth.

‘Yun pong paratang is a very big mistake dahil sabi ko nga po, ang anak namin [ay] walang hinahangad na masama at lalong hindi niya po ito gagawin para sa sarili [niyang] kapakanan,” the elder Garcia said.

Meanwhile, Pecayo’s grandfather, Rizalino, also described his kin as “kind, smart and humane” during the press conference. He explained that Pecayo’s father died in 2018, and that the rights activist has been under his care since then.

Ang gusto po namin ay isaayos ang baluktot . . . Nananawagan po kami na sana po ay repasuhin ‘yung kasong isinampa sa kanila at ibasura,” Pecayo’s grandfather said.

On the current status of the charges, Defend Southern Tagalog confirmed that all cases have already been submitted for resolution at the fiscal level, except for Rev. Glofie Baluntong’s which is still pending in court.

According to the rights group, the charges filed against the activists are only “baseless attempts by the military to conceal the gross human rights violations committed” in the region.