Red-tagging: It’s like ‘living with a target on your head’
MANILA, Philippines — When the police came for her at dawn on Dec. 10, Lady Ann Salem said she felt only deja vu.
Not because it had happened to her before, but because she had written or edited stories for Manila Today about the ordeal of those who did: Reina Nasino, Frenchie Cumpio, and Amanda Echanis. They were women involved in community work who had been branded as communists, then arrested on charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
So when they zip-tied her hands and asked her to face the wall an hour before the actual “raid” began, Salem knew: This is it. It’s my turn.
All this, she believed, was because of her work with the alternative news site that had headlined urban poor issues, leading to its being tagged a communist propagandist.
The government, however, insists there is no such thing as “red-tagging” — accusing activists, journalists, academics, lawyers, judges, labor leaders or even celebrities of being members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) — or that it poses a danger to those branded as such.
But the reality is that those red-tagged endure much more than stigma. For peasant leader Lino Baez, it’s like “living with a target on your head.” Many become alienated from families and friends. Some are forced into hiding while others like Salem are arrested, or worse, tortured and disappeared.
For rights lawyer Kristina Conti, Red-tagging “is enough to get you killed.”
Blurred demarcation lines
Six administrations have failed to squelch the communist insurgency, with the conflict leaving thousands of rebels, soldiers and even civilians dead in the last 52 years. The state has sought to declare the CPP a terrorist organization and enemy of the state.
But believing in communism or even joining left-leaning organizations are not punishable crimes, Conti said. These are even protected by the 1987 Constitution under the right to freedom of expression and association.
“Some of (communism’s) thoughts and precepts overlap with the precepts of ordinary groups like national democrats, Christians,” she added. “That is the danger of going after organizations.”
This is also why human rights workers find themselves in the thick of the government’s take-no-prisoners ideological crackdown.
“The defense and promotion of human rights are considered left politics anywhere in the world, especially here in the Philippines,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan. “The problem is if you do not recognize the demarcation line between some people who have this politics and those who take up arms.”
Since 2016, the group has documented 207 people who were killed after being red-tagged. Another 703 were arrested and detained on trumped-up charges, while nine were forcibly disappeared, she added.
Even Karapatan, which mostly documents human rights violations and provides assistance for victims, has been accused by the government’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) of being a “legal front” for underground rebel organizations.
“We’re well aware of the dangers of this work,” Palabay said. “It’s not as if we have a death wish, either. But much like the work of journalists and lawyers, it needs to be done…”
Charged in court
Some of their members like Jay Apiag, Karapatan-Southern Mindanao’s secretary general, have been branded as guerrilla fighters and charged in court for allegedly shooting it out with the military.
A nursing major from Davao, Apiag said he took up human rights work after seeing the sorry plight of far-flung communities with no access to basic social services.
Having grown up in such an area himself, inequality was not new to him. “The grievances of peasants are something I myself am deeply familiar with,” he said.
Much of his work entails documenting rights violations in the countryside, where peasant communities are often tagged as NPA sympathizers. Now Apiag believes his defense of the poor has made him a target, too.
After being accused of engaging soldiers in a shootout in Sitio Balite, Davao de Oro, in March 2018, he has been referred to on tarpaulins as an NPA rebel, as well as on digital cards posted on the NTF-Elcac Facebook page.
Then he was slapped with attempted murder charges twice last year supposedly for engaging the military in separate encounters in Davao, prompting him to seek help from the Commission on Human Rights.
“The more I became vocal in my criticism of the fascist, antipeople policies of the government, the [worse] the attacks and harassment [got]. [They] have drastically changed my life,” Apiag said.
Baez also knows only too well that being branded as a state enemy has irreversible consequences for the victim’s family and friends.
The spokesperson of militant group Bayan-Batangas joined the organized movement in 2010 because his son, Ronilo, was wrongly jailed over allegations he was an NPA rebel.
Ronilo’s arrest as part of the so-called “Taysan 3” political prisoners under the Aquino administration was the start of “intense surveillance, harassment” by the military against Baez and his family. As a result, one of his children still suffers from mental breakdowns, while many of their kin have disowned them.
Still, Baez continues his work with the peasant movement, as he knows firsthand “the extreme poverty endured by peasants like me because they are abused and exploited by landlords wanting to usurp the lands they have tilled.”
The attacks against him, however, have intensified under the Duterte administration, he said. In 2018, Baez was among the 600 individuals named by the Department of Justice in its proscription petition seeking to declare the CPP-NPA as a terrorist group.
In the last three years, he has also been slapped with four separate charges of multiple murder, frustrated murder, and most recently, of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. The peasant leader has claimed innocence of all charges—three of which have since been dismissed—and calls them part of the government’s efforts to bring him to heel.
He believes he narrowly escaped the fate of his colleagues Chai and Arlene Evangelista, peasant leaders killed in the so-called “Bloody Sunday” raids conducted by the police in Calabarzon region on March 9.
He was actually the subject of a similar warrant but at that time, he was not home. But his wife and children who were there were left “extremely traumatized.”
Not state enemies
But “despite everything I’ve been through — the violence and harassment by my own government, not once did I ever think of taking up arms to take revenge,” an emotional Baez said. “I want them to understand that we are not state enemies. We are their victims. And we want (the state)… to acknowledge our rights and recognize us as upright citizens.”
He, along with Salem and Apiag, faced what Conti said were political charges that “imply they were NPA rebels.”
Because being a communist was not a crime, the police often fabricate crimes against individuals to bolster allegations they were part of the armed movement, she added.
This was true in Salem’s case. For three hours, the police rummaged through her small condo unit, “unearthing” guns and grenades in her bag and under her pillows. Odd places to hide a firearm, she thought then.
“Shouldn’t they at least make an effort to appear credible?” Salem mused. “But later on, I realized it didn’t matter if they did a sloppy job. [Even] if they put guns under pillows, you will still end up in jail—whether it’s for a day, a week, a month, a year. They would have accomplished their objective.”
Sure enough, in the next three months, Salem was subjected to the justice system’s worst conditions. For at least 35 hours after her arrest she was not allowed to speak to her lawyers or family, prompting fears she might be forcibly disappeared.
In between transfers from Camp Bagong Diwa to Mandaluyong City Jail, she was repeatedly placed in isolation ostensibly because of COVID-19 protocol. But she believed it was meant to keep her from getting in touch with lawyers and family.
At one point, she was in an isolation room where “you can’t talk to anybody. All you had was a bed and an electric fan. You had nothing to do except wait for meals — that was the only thing that changed with my days.”
When she was finally transferred to the Mandaluyong City Jail, Salem had to sleep in crowded, hot cells. “But I couldn’t even cry about my situation because my co-inmates kept telling me what to do: Go to sleep. Take a bath. And then the events just take over you.”
Still, she counts herself lucky. Her case was dismissed in February by Mandaluyong Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, who ruled that the police had undertaken a “fishing expedition” and provided inconsistent testimonies regarding the seizure.
Quisumbing-Ignacio, however, would also be Red-tagged for her order that led to Salem’s release.
Despite its far-reaching consequences, there are no existing legal remedies for Red-tagging itself. “But there is an option to criminalize the damage against you,” Conti said.
Victims can either sue for libel or they may file a case for grave threat. But “from a legal perspective, it’s too small a crime. There are no means to seek direct redress,” she added.
One may always seek court protection through the writs of amparo and habeas data. But as seen in its ruling in Zarate v. Aquino, the Supreme Court “does not yet recognize that Red-tagging is a death threat,” Conti said.
As a result, rights and legal groups are seeking preemptive measures. Among others, they have asked the high court to review the administrative circular that gives the executive judges of Manila and Quezon City authority to issue search warrants outside their jurisdiction.
There are other ways to hold public officials directly accountable. Karapatan, for one, has filed a complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman seeking to hold some NTF-Elcac officials, including spokespersons Lorraine Badoy and Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., liable for graft and gross misconduct.
Recently, a Senate bill was filed to make Red-tagging a criminal offense as a potential deterrent against state agents who do so, often with little or no proof.
If passed, the bill would make the act punishable by up to 10 years in prison and stem “the increasing institutionalization and normalization of human rights violations,” according to its author, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
But rights groups were cautious about the bill’s effectivity, “not when it is a policy enshrined in Executive Order No. 70, the antiterror law and President Duterte’s own rhetoric,” Conti said.
Should domestic mechanisms fail, Palabay said, another option was to seek redress through international bodies like the International Criminal Court and United Nations.
“We can also rely on ourselves,” Palabay pointed out. “It’s not foolproof, but for the longest time, the communities we serve have also protected us, and they continue to do that.”
But as they wait for justice, the country’s human rights defenders have vowed to continue their work.
“For me, whether I am a rights worker or not, justice will prevail. So there’s no point in quitting. So many of our colleagues’ lives have been lost to the cause. Should I quit now? Of course not,” Apiag said.