Senator hits ‘harassment’ of onion farmer’s widow
Sen. Imee Marcos took issue with the alleged harassment committed by the police in Bayambang, Pangasinan, against a widowed farmer who earlier appeared in a Senate inquiry into the high prices of onions.
In a statement on Thursday, Marcos assailed the municipal police for allegedly harassing Merlita Gallardo who, in a hearing held on Monday by the Senate committee on agriculture, food and agrarian reform, said five farmers had committed suicide, including her husband Roger, due to losses incurred in onion farming in Bayambang town.
Roger, a barangay councilor in Paragos village, died in 2021 after failing to settle debts amounting to P500,000 and suffering losses of about P1.7 million, Gallardo said during the hearing.
According to Marcos, Bayambang policemen visited the widow five times, forcing her to sign an affidavit stating that her testimony at the hearing was false.
“What’s the reason for asking her to recant? Do they want her to say that only one, her husband, died, even if the entire barangay knows that five died of suicide?” the senator said.
Marcos said the police officers went to the house of Gallardo and of the other onion farmers upon the orders of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.
“Do we now consider our farmers in provinces rebels who are members of the CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines, and its armed wing, the New People’s Army)?” Marcos said. “Hands off our witnesses, especially if they are telling the truth, even if they hurt your feelings.”
In a statement, Col. Jeff Fanged, Pangasinan provincial police director, said the Bayambang police only acted on the request of Virgilio Sison, provincial director of the DILG, to validate the report of the five farmers’ suicide in Pangasinan.
He said “corrective measures” would be taken if it was proven that the Bayambang police harassed Gallardo and the other onion farmers. In a radio interview on Friday, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. said the case might be due to some “confusion and misunderstanding” between the police and Gallardo.
Azurin said he had directed Fanged to talk with Gallardo “and give their family an assurance that no harassment would be committed by the Bayambang police officers.”
“Our police meant no harm and only want what’s good for Nanay Merlita. They just wanted clarification in case the police would be asked about the circumstances of her husband’s death,” he added.
The PNP chief clarified that the police wanted her to sign an affidavit as “part of the documentation” and they were not asking her to recant her statement before the Senate committee.
“We are apologizing for the misunderstanding that the police have caused during their interview with Nanay Merlita. I promise that the police will no longer disturb the peace of Nanay Merlita, unless she requests for police assistance. The issue is already closed and settled,” Azurin said.
Also in a statement on Thursday, the Bayambang municipal government said the DILG merely asked the local police to investigate the alleged suicide of five farmers in the town.
“No one in the town is being harassed amid the investigation. It is the priority of the [local government] of Bayambang to take care of every Bayambangueño at any time,” it said.
Bayambang Mayor Niña Jose Quiambao also denied that the five farmers took their own lives because of the rising prices of onions.
Quiambao, citing data from the municipal rural health office and the Bayambang police, said no suicides had been reported with the cause linked to onion prices.
She said there was only one case of a farmer killing himself in January 2021. “But this is not because of the rising prices of onions but because of an infestation of crop-eating armyworms (harabas).”
Quiambao added: “Again, we are making it clear that no local farmer had committed suicide and no one among our townmates had reported suffering from the increase in onion prices.”
In a phone interview on Friday, Bayambang Agriculture Officer Zyra Orpiano also stressed that the suicide of Gallardo’s husband in 2021 was “not because of the prices of onions, but because their crop was devastated by armyworms.” They also rented more farms and took bigger loans at the time, she said.
“Unfortunately, the onion farms were attacked by harabas and he lost [all his] crops. Then the situation was worsened by the pandemic, which could have caused him to suffer from depression and take his own life,” said Orpiano.
—WITH A REPORT FROM YOLANDA SOTELO
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