Activists back with kin after baring abduction
MANILA, Philippines — The two environmental activists who went missing on Sept. 2 and were later reported to be in government custody after leaving the “leftist movement” were finally reunited with their families on Tuesday afternoon.
From Bulacan province where they were in the custody of the 70th Infantry Battalion (IB), Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano were brought to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) office in Manila to ensure that they would be on “neutral ground” upon their release. They were accompanied by Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas.
After a closed-door meeting with CHR officials, both women had a tearful reunion with their respective families who had been scouring police stations for weeks to find them.
“While we did not know what would happen to us while we were under custody, we drew strength from the belief that there were people in the outside world waiting for us,” said the 21-year-old Castro. “Now, we need to focus on what our country needs. We need to continue the fight against reclamation activities for the sake of the fisherfolk of Manila Bay.”
In a press briefing organized in the morning of Tuesday by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), she and Tamano confirmed they were kidnapped by the military on Sept. 2.
“We chose to speak up today because it’s important that the truth comes out. Were we abducted or did we voluntarily surrender? The truth is we were abducted by the military,” Castro said at the briefing held at the Plaridel municipal hall in Bulacan.
“We were forced to surrender because we were threatened. It’s not true that we wanted the military to take custody of us,” she added, debunking the government’s claim that both women had yielded to authorities for their own protection after deciding to leave the communist movement.
“The issue here is the blatant facism of the military that we want to uncover today. The truth here is the issue on the Manila Bay reclamation. Fishermen are losing their source of livelihood,” Castro said in a firm, defiant voice that broke at times.
Seated beside her was the 22-year-old Tamano who, according to environmental and rights groups, is a coordinator for the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum. Castro, on the other hand, is a community organizer for Akap-Ka Manila Bay, which is opposed to reclamation activities.
Flanking the two women were NTF-Elcac Director Alexander Umpar on one side and Lt. Col. Rommel dela Cruz, commanding officer of the 70th IB, on the other. Both officials seemed surprised at the unexpected turn of events, with the latter glancing frequently at NTF-Elcac spokesperson Undersecretary Joel Egco, who served as the moderator at the event.
Tamano confirmed that she and Castro were kidnapped and did not surrender voluntarily to the military.
“We were walking on the road on Sept. 2 when a sport utility vehicle (SUV) stopped in front of us and we were forced to board it. That is the truth. We thought it was a syndicate,” she said.
At the time of their disappearance in Orion, Bataan province, both were preparing for relief operations in the province whose coastal towns are among the many areas threatened by reclamation projects in Manila Bay.
Military: They were rescued
Dela Cruz, who as head of the 70th IB is in charge of military operations in Bulacan and Pampanga provinces, said that he and his men rescued Castro and Tamano after receiving a report that they were missing.
He insisted that both voluntarily surrendered to his unit and that Tamano had even admitted to carrying firearms and being involved in encounters between the military and communist rebels.
“They (Castro and Tamano) signed their affidavits with their lawyer [that they were voluntarily yielding to the government]. We were not even there when they signed their statements,” Dela Cruz said.
For his part, Umpar asserted that he was “standing by the report of our military.” “We are here to take good care of the welfare of activists who return to the fold of the law,” he said.
Tamano, however, denied that they were armed at the time they were kidnapped.
Before the press briefing was cut short by NTF-Elcac officials, Castro disclosed that she and Tamano had proof that they were abducted, adding that they lost their belongings while trying to resist the men who were forcing them into the SUV.
“We didn’t surrender. In fact, we lost our slippers. What we are wearing now are not ours,” she said.
“We were abducted. We were blindfolded. Our arms were tied. We and our families were threatened. We were interrogated. I denied what we have signed in that affidavit. They are the ones who made up the stories in that affidavit,” she added.
Outside the municipal hall, their supporters from the “Surface Jonila and Jhed Network” called on the military and the local government to immediately release them.
‘We felt betrayed’
The NTF-Elcac in a statement Tuesday said it stood by Dela Cruz’s account, noting that it was backed up by the activists’ respective affidavits narrating their whereabouts from the time they decided to leave the underground movement until their arrival at the 70th IB headquarters in Bulacan “with the help of a friend.”
“We are appalled as we are deeply saddened by the unfortunate turn of events during this morning’s press conference… We felt betrayed,” it said, adding that it was also standing by the report of Bataan policemen.
“Whatever caused their sudden change of heart is beyond us. Earlier engagements by task force officials with the two students regarding the veracity and truthfulness of their affidavits were convincing enough to merit their public appearance. We were hoodwinked,” the NTF-Elcac stated.
It said that if the two women’s intention was to humiliate the task force, “we shall remain unfazed and committed to fulfilling our mandate for the greater good of the people and of the country.”
In a press briefing on Friday, National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said that Castro and Tamano surrendered to the 70th IB on Sept. 12, then executed sworn affidavits in front of lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office and CHR.
Malaya also threatened to file charges against groups that claimed the two were kidnapped by authorities.
This is not the first time, however, that activists who had been reported missing were presented by military officials or policemen.
On June 2, Patricia Cierva and Cedric Casaño suddenly reappeared alongside 18 other “confessed rebels” who surrendered to Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba. The mass surrender was facilitated by the local military unit and the Cagayan Provincial Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.
At a press briefing, youth organizer Cierva and Casaño, the Kabataan Partylist coordinator in Isabela province, belied reports they were taken by the military, contrary to rights group Karapatan’s claim that they were abducted by members of the 501st IB during a supposed encounter on May 18.