Governance, Human rights

A weaponized justice system brings the worst injustices

On Mar 7, yet another wave of coordinated arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings struck the activist and cause-oriented groups in the country. According to media reports, nine were killed and six were arrested in simultaneous operations carried out by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Southern Tagalog. The victims are activists from organizations of workers, urban poor, farmers and fishers, as well as from human rights groups based in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal provinces.

This latest spate of attacks against activists came a mere nine weeks since the PNP launched a similar operation in Panay island. Nine people were killed and 17 were arrested by the police in several indigenous Tumandok communities on Dec 30, 2020. 

Common to both cases is the PNP claim that they were enforcing search warrants against the targeted activists for supposed illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Even more strikingly similar is that in both police operations, apparently the same judge issued the search warrants – Judge Jose Lorenzo R. Dela Rosa of Branch 4 of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC). (Note: in the Tumanduk case, another Manila RTC judge, Judge Carolina Icasiano Sison, was also named as behind the warrants.)

Less than two weeks prior to the Tumandok operations, the PNP also searched the houses of activists in Metro Manila and nabbed seven people on Dec 10, 2020. Again, the police secured search warrants for firearms and explosives to legitimize their operations. Providing the warrant was Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of the Quezon City RTC Branch 89. Villavert first gained notoriety for issuing the search warrants that led to the arrest of 57 individuals (including 15 minors aged 12 to 17) in Negros Occidental on Oct 31, 2019. 

Activists and communities in the island of Negros have been repeatedly targeted by joint police and military operations using court-issued search warrants as a cover. On Mar 30, 2019, state forces, in the process of enforcing 36 search warrants, killed 14 people and arrested 16 more in Negros Oriental. Just three months earlier, on Dec 27, 2018, six people were killed and 31 were arrested in simultaneous police operations in the same province. This time, the PNP was armed with more than 80 search warrants, according to reports. One judge sanctioned both Negros operations – Judge Soliver Peras of Branch 10 of the Cebu City RTC. 

The Duterte administration has blatantly weaponized the regional trial courts and included the legal system in its arsenal against activists and the marginalized communities and sectors they serve. When the justice system itself is weaponized to repress the people, the injustices committed become doubly abhorrent. Where else are people supposed to go to correct the wrongs made against them when those who are supposed to dispense justice are perceived as hoodlums themselves? 

The police and military template of taking in activists based on concocted lies and justified by dubious warrants has naturally led to ludicrous cases of arrests. In several instances, the arrested victims involve elderly women whom state forces laughably insist are in possession of explosives and firearms in her home, a household that usually includes young grandchildren. Even the United Nations Human Rights Office in a June 2020 report raised the alarm (in the context of Duterte’s equally vicious drug war) on how the Philippine police would “repeatedly recover guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations” during their operations. 

For those killed during bloodstained police operations, even Duterte’s Justice department could no longer fully rationalize the “nanlaban”narrative (i.e., the victims resisted arrest and were killed by the police in the process). In a report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Justice department admitted that in more than half of the nanlaban cases they reviewed in the drug war, law enforcement agents did not follow protocol and no full examination of the recovered weapon was conducted. 

While the victims are involved in legitimate advocacies on the issues of land, labor, human rights, etc., they have been set up for state-perpetrated assaults through the non-stop red-tagging (labelling activists and their organizations as communists terrorists) by the regime. All these – the red-tagging, the use of courts to legitimize the raids on the houses and offices of activists, and the consequent killings and arrests, are part of the counterinsurgency campaign of Duterte. The made-up narrative is that the activists belong to the armed communist rebellion, thus the search warrants for firearms and explosives.

The UN Human Rights Office pointed out that that “the vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics are being increasingly institutionalized and normalized” in the country, as it noted how red-tagging “has posed a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression”. It correctly argued that activists have become the targets of verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment as “human rights advocacy is routinely equated with insurgency and the focus diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message.” 

What exactly is the substance of the message?

Some of those who were killed and arrested in the latest attacks in Southern Tagalog are workers and labor rights advocates. The minimum wage in the Calabarzon region (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) is between PHP 317 and PHP 400, barely 20% of the estimated cost of living. Southern Tagalog workers and their supporters, as elsewhere in the country, have every reason to organize and struggle for their interests and rights, including on decent living. This is especially so under Duterte whose presidency is the worst in terms of addressing the issue of low wages.

Some of those who were killed and arrested are farmers, fishers and peasant rights advocates. With chronic landlessness and lack of government support, farmers suffer the worst poverty in the country. Based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the poverty incidence among farmers is at 31.6% – the highest among all sectors, followed by fishers with 26.2 percent. Meanwhile, based on the official Census of Agriculture, as high as 62% of farmlands in Calabarzon in terms of area are not fully owned or controlled by the tillers. Farmers and peasant rights advocates in Southern Tagalog have every reason to organize and struggle for their right to land and life; especially so under Duterte who has openly instructed the police and military to shoot and kill farmers who are asserting such rights.

Like all the oppressed, the workers, farmers and people of Southern Tagalog do not only have the reasons to fight their oppression – they also have the legitimate right to do so. Indeed, no court warrant can arrest or kill the people’s collective right to resist injustice. ###

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