Labor, rights groups condemn 'tokhang-style' raids of activists' offices

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Local and international groups have sounded the alarm over the police raids of militant groups' offices that led to the arrest of 58 activists in Manila and Bacolod.

The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment said in a statement on Saturday, November 2, that Kalikasan, alongside international enviromental and rights groups, raised what it called the "illegal arrests" reminiscent of the questionable process employed in President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial drug war.

“We condemn this recent surge of ‘tokhang’-style raids and arrests against land and environmental defenders and other activists by the police and military forces. We have urged US authorities to support investigations into the ongoing human rights crisis that have made the Philippines deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders,” said Clemente Bautista, Kalikasan international network coordinator.

"We asked the US Congress to withdraw its military and police aid from the Filipino military and police until they cease their relentless human rights atrocities," he added.

He said among those arrested were Gabriela Metro Manila spokesperson Cora Agovida, a campaigner against land reclamation in Manila Bay; and Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Negros spokesperson Danny Tabura and National Federation of Sugar Workers secretary-general John Milton Lozande, who are among the leaders of land cultivation campaigns in Negros. 

“Kalikasan’s office itself confronted constant surveillance and raid attempts over the past month. It is now very apparent that there is a drive by the Duterte regime to churn out fake warrants and plant fake evidence to justify the mass arrests of critics and dissenters,” said Bautista. 

Stop US military, police aid to PH

Kalikasan said it raised these issues in a series of public fora and dialogues with representatives of the US State Department, House of Representatives, and Senate since October 26 in Washington, DC, organized by international watchdog Global Witness and the World Resources Institute.

“Military, police and paramilitary forces were linked to 69% of the perpetrators of environmental defender killings under the Duterte regime. Despite this, the US has poured at least $193.5 million in military aid and has sold at least #63 million worth of arms to the Duterte regime,” Bautista said.

The US government has laws that prohibit its State Department and Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign security forces that violate human rights with impunity. 

On Thursday, October 31, the offices of Bayan Muna, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Gabriela, and the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) were raided by members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Western Visayas, in coordination with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (3ID), Joint Task Force-Negros and Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office.

That night, 56 people who were suspected of being New People’s Army (NPA) members were arrested. Six minors, whose parents were among those arrested, were also taken during the raids. (READ: Crackdown? Same QC judge issues search warrants vs activists in Manila, Bacolod)

Law enforcers alleged that the progressive groups were “legal fronts” of the Communist Party pf the Philippines. The military alleged that the groups were carrying illegal firearms and their offices were being used as "training centers" for child soldiers.

The organizations involved said that the firearms and explosives found during the raid were planted in their offices.  (READ: Authorities arrest 56 in Bacolod crackdown on militant groups)

'Thief in the night'

Labor NGO  Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER)  Executive Director Rochelle Porras likened the "crackdown" to a "thief in the night."

“Duterte government's crackdown against trade unionists and activists through obscure search warrants and trumped-up charges shows that de facto Martial Law is in place. Just like a thief in the night, state elements unjustly enter the homes of the people, disrupt their peaceful remembrance of All Saints’ Day and wreak havoc," Porras said in a statement on Friday, November 1.

She  expressed anger over the Duterte administration's response to "labor rights defenders who are exercising their rights to organize," adding that "the government is aggravating the situation with their continued harassment and attacks against the people instead of going after those accountable for the grave violations of human rights in the country."

"We call on the public to join the Labor Rights Defenders Network and work together to put an end to the attacks and violence perpetrated among our rights defenders and workers. We strongly support the demand for justice and accountability, and call for the immediate release of the rights defenders," it said.

'Pattern of attack'

Aside from denouncing the raid, the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) also called for the release of 36-year-old Mary Anne Krueger of the newly established alternative media outfit Paghimutad. 

Krueger is the organizer of the BIEN-Bacolod Chapter, where she assists BPO workers on their campaign and legal battle against mandatory overtime.

BIEN said the Duterte government’s crackdown on unionists and activists "follows a similar pattern of attacks wherein unionists, organizers and activists are arrested with the aid of faulty warrants and planting of evidence during raids."

"Since Duterte came to power Negros island alone witnessed 85 victims of extrajudicial killings mostly farm workers and their families who have been fighting for their land. The arrest of Krueger and other unionists in Bacolod is a desperate tyrannical move of the Duterte government to silence groups that have been airing legitimate demands of the workers for secure jobs, higher wages and workers rights," BIEN said.

Krueger and her husband, Michael dela Concepcion, who was also arrested, are both trade union organizers and allies of the CWA.

'Unacceptable'

CWA President Chris Shelton called the arrests and raids " unacceptable" and "evidence of the effort to silence and intimidate those seeking to improve the lives and conditions of Filipino workers."

"CWA strongly condemns the raids and arrests and stands in solidarity with Anne and her family and all those arrested in what appears to be a crackdown on workers exercising their human rights," Shelton said.

"We call on other international observers, including multinational corporations operating in the massive BPO industry in the Philippines, to use their voices to call for Anne’s release as soon as possible and to speak out against the climate of fear and retaliation targeting workers that is on the rise in the Philippines under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte," he added.

Tim Dubnau, Deputy Director of Organizing for CWA, also vouched for Anne and Michael, whom he had met in 2016.

"It is clear that both Anne and Michael are loving parents to their children, and don't have a violent bone in their body. It is simply not credible that either of them would be involved with any violence whatsoever, and there is simply no way they are involved in any insurgency," he said.

"They are dedicated to lifting up working people who make low wages working for giant transnational corporations, and they are equally dedicated to lovingly raising their 5 young children. They deserve to be cleared of charges and reunited with their family as soon as possible," he added. 

De Lima joins condemnation

In a statement released on Sunday, November 3, detained Senator Leila de Lima condemned the spate of arrests as "another page from Duterte’s manual on tyranny."

 "This blatant attack on political dissent, once again disguised as law enforcement, is an old formula for repression, abusing and forcing the judicial processes to give way to the whims of this administration in order to muffle the growing opposition to Duterte’s quasi-dictatorial rule," De Lima said.

 De Lima said the arrests are only part of a broader attack on the rule of law, just as his administration has implemented the popular but bloody anti-illegal drugs campaign.

 According to De Lima, just like the detained activists, she will not stop fighting against the administration. – Rappler.com