Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, expresses its concerns over the judicial harassment of seven activists falsely accused of rebellion in Baguio City, the Philippines. We call on the Government of the Philippines to drop all charges against the activists and instead direct its efforts to promote and protect the safety and security of human rights defenders.
On 20 February 2023, a warrant of arrest was issued against seven women/human rights defenders accused of rebellion. The defenders are Sarah Abello, Windel Bolinget, Steve Tauli, and Lulu Gimenez – members of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) – as well as Florence Kang and Niño Oconer – the Executive Director of Ilocos Centre for Research, Empowerment and Development and Northern Dispatch's Ilocos correspondent, respectively. Jennifer Awingan-Taggaoa, a researcher of CPA and a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Indigenous Youth Network who was arrested on 30 January for rebellion but subsequently released on 7 February, is also among the accused. The seven human rights defenders have been tirelessly working for social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The accusation of rebellion stemmed from an incident where the New Peoples Army (NPA) ambushed and attacked four soldiers of the Philippines Army, in Gacab, a district of the municipality of Malibcong on 27 October 2022. In the incident, two out of four soldiers were killed.
"We believe the arrest warrant issued against the seven individuals has no basis and is related to their activities, defending human rights, social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples. This incident adds to the long list of cases of judicial harassment against human rights defenders in the Philippines, where activists are often vilified, red-tagged, or even killed with impunity,’ said Cornelius Hanung, Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Officer of CIVICUS.
Civic space in the Philippines deteriorated during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. Activists were arbitrarily arrested, abducted, and even killed with impunity. Further, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has continued to vilify and red-tag human rights defenders, with many of them facing trumped-up criminal charges. The situation has not improved under the current administration of President Marcos Jr. According to human rights groups, as of early 2023, more than 800 political prisoners are languishing in various jails in the Philippines.
CIVICUS expresses solidarity with the seven human rights defenders and calls on the Government of the Philippines to drop all charges against them immediately and unconditionally. The international community must also speak up on this case and on the threats facing human rights defenders in the Philippines.
‘Instead of criminalising activists, the Philippines government must step up efforts to respect and protect the work of human rights defenders and their wellbeing – this includes adopting legislation to protect human rights defenders from further harm,’ Cornelius Hanung said.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.