By Jose Torres Jr.
A police manhunt launched this week for four Filipino activists, all former leftist members of the Lower House of Congress, has alarmed church and human rights groups.
The Philippine National Police has deployed an elite force to find and arrest the former legislators in connection with a murder case filed 12 years ago.
Arrest warrants have been issued against Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casino of the Bayan Muna party, Rafael Mariano of the Anakpawis party, and Liza Maza of the women’s party Gabriela.
Mariano served as President Rodrigo Duterte’s Agrarian Reform chief until last year, while Maza currently heads the government’s National Anti-Poverty Commission.
A judge in the northern province of Nueva Ecija, who said she found probable cause against the accused, issued the arrest order, dated July 11.
The case stemmed from a complaint filed 12 years ago by two widows who accused the activists of conspiracy in the killing of their husbands.
The complainants alleged that in 2000 the accused planned and met to kill the victims, farmers who supported the legislators, but who reportedly wanted to support rival party Akbayan.
Police records, however, showed that one of the farmers was killed in 2004 because of a land dispute while the other victim was killed in a traffic accident in 2003.
Father Edwin Gariguez, head of the social action secretariat of the Philippine Catholic bishops’ conference, said the new allegations against the activists were meant to silence critics of the government.
“This is a common strategy of the government and the military to harass and to silence opposition,” said the priest, adding that it is a “deplorable tactic.”
“We support the causes of the [activists]. We demand a halt to tyranny and harassment of progressive groups,” Father Gariguez said.
Benedictine nun Mary John Mananzan said the allegations against the former legislators were “definitely a case of harassment.”
“I personally know these four people and they cannot possibly have done what they are accused of,” said the nun, adding that what “the so called witnesses are saying is hearsay.”
Lawyer Neri Colmenares, Bayan Muna chairman, said the allegations were “incredible, preposterous and outright lies.”
Supporters of the four former legislators cried “political persecution,” noting that the case was revived when the peace process between the government and communist rebels broke down.
The 79-year Ocampo was the longest-serving political prisoner during the time of former president Ferdinand Marcos.
He negotiated for a peace agreement between the government and the communist rebels after the ouster of the former dictator.
Human rights group Karapatan said the circumstances surrounding the case “reveal an orchestrated effort by militarists … to persecute those who dare to criticize the government.”
Karapatan’s Cristina Palabay said a government agency dubbed the Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action has been tasked to file cases in court against activists and other figures.
She warned of a “widespread witch-hunt” against Duterte’s critics in the coming days.
“The continued use of trumped-up charges to silence and impede the work of activists merely attests to the repressive and tyrannical character of the Duterte government,” Palabay said.
The lawyers of the former legislators were seeking the dismissal of the charges.