Satur, aid group held for ‘human trafficking’
DAVAO CITY—Police backed by Army soldiers arrested former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo and 17 other leaders of militant groups and volunteer “lumad” (indigenous people) teachers on human trafficking charges.
Ocampo and the others were supposed to deliver food supplies to a remote village in Talaingod, Davao del Norte province, and rescue dozens of lumad teachers and pupils allegedly being harassed by members of the armed paramilitary group called Alamara when policemen and soldiers stopped them at a checkpoint on Wednesday night.
They were among more than 70 people, including 29 schoolchildren, in a five-vehicle convoy that was intercepted by Talaingod police officers and soldiers from the 56th Infantry Battalion (IB) at Barangay Santo Niño and held there until the next morning.
By noon on Thursday, the police had read charges of trafficking to Ocampo, Act Rep. France Castro, the lumad school executive director, nine volunteer lumad teachers, two other Act members and four Protestant pastors.
They were also charged with violating a law that gave special protection to children and brought to the City Prosecutor’s Office in Tagum City later in the afternoon.
Ocampo and the others were part of a solidarity mission that responded to an urgent appeal for help from lumad teachers of Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center at Barangay Palma Gil where troops from the 56th IB and Alamara gunmen had allegedly imposed a food blockade.
On their way to Talaingod from Tagum, where they had unsuccessfully sought security escorts from the Davao del Norte governor and other government officials, their convoy was flagged down by Army soldiers at Sitio Igang, Palma Gil, around 8 p.m. on Wednesday. They were later allowed to proceed.
The teachers, distressed by the forcible closure of their school at Sitio Dulyan allegedly by Alamara gunmen, were so afraid for their safety that they left the community with their pupils in tow until they met up with Ocampo’s convoy in Sitio Butay after a two-hour trek.
Speaking by phone to reporters in Manila, Davao regional office spokesperson, Chief Insp. Jason Baria, said the Department of Education regional office shut down the school because it was suspected to be a front for the communist New People’s Army.
Senior Supt. Ferlu Silvio, Davao del Norte police chief, said Ocampo was also being held on an arrest warrant issued by a judge in Palayan City, Nueva Ecija, in connection with a 2004 murder case. The former Bayan Muna lawmaker and three other left-wing former representatives had earlier described the charge as trumped-up.
Custody of minors
The Talaingod social welfare office had taken custody of 14 minors, age 15 to 17, according to the police.
In a statement, the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives said it would be “a blatant and outrageous lie” to accuse Ocampo, Castro and the others with trafficking.
“Central to the crime of trafficking of minors is the purpose of exploitation, which includes, at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, servitude or the removal or sale of organs,” it said.
In a statement, the human rights group Karapatan warned against the filing of “fabricated” charges against Ocampo’s group and demanded their immediate release.
“This regime’s seeming endless arsenal of dirty tricks, which includes military occupation of communities and schools, killings, threats and harassment of residents, including children, and rights defenders, is spiteful and condemnable,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.
“This is nothing but clear harassment as they still refuse to release the group despite the submission of certification from the children’s parents,” she said.
Gabriela Representatives Emmi de Jesus and Arlene Brosas, in a separate statement, challenged Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to defend the rights of House members, especially those who visit areas that need their attention. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEANNETTE A. ANDRADE, MELVIN GASCON AND JEROME ANING