Guevarra distances DOJ from report red-tagging political parties, rights groups

Lian Buan
Guevarra distances DOJ from report red-tagging political parties, rights groups
'Hindi naman 'yun nangangahulugan na lahat ng bagay na nakasulat doon sa report na 'yun ay kinakatigan ng Department of Justice,' says Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Friday, September 18, distanced his department from the Philippine government’s official report that red-tags progressive political parties and human rights groups.

“Hindi naman ‘yun nangangahulugan na lahat ng bagay na nakasulat doon sa report na ‘yun ay kinakatigan ng Department of Justice,” Guevarra said on Friday during the House of Representative’s deliberations on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 2021 budget. (It doesn’t mean that DOJ endorses everything that was written in that report.)

A copy of the Philippine government’s human rights situationer dated May 2020 and presented to the United Nations is uploaded on the DOJ website. 

In the multi-agency report, the government branded the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples’ Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) as terrorists, and called political parties such as Bayan Muna, Gabriela, ACT-Teachers as well as other human rights groups like i-Defend and Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) as having been created by the CPP.

Progressives call this red-tagging or the association of groups to communists, which the leftists have long claimed to be linked to alleged state-sponsored violence, such as the disappearance and killing of activists. There is no law that criminalizes communism.

Guevarra initially said that he was not aware of such a statement of red-tagging in the report.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said that they uploaded the report on their website upon the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Perete said the DOJ’s only input in the report were the statistics from the task force against extrajudicial killings, or the Administrative Order (AO) 35 task force.

‘Tacit endorsement’

“There is a tacit endorsement of the report, you cannot just dichotomize the issues contained in that whole report,” Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate said during the budget deliberations.

The Duterte administration is proposing a P22.57-billion budget for the DOJ in 2021, although the department is asking Congress for more – P33.42 billion.

Progressive lawmakers have used the budget hearings to hold certain government agencies to account for human rights abuses in the Philippines.

Zarate pointed out the seeming conflict for the DOJ to have a hand in such a report, when it is also mandated to prosecute complaints related to red-tagging, many of which are filed by government officials themselves against activists. (READ: Duterte’s war on dissent)

“There is a grave implication to that, it appears now that it is being endorsed by a department which is supposedly independent and looking at things when there are a lot of pending cases in the DOJ on this matter,” Zarate told Guevarra and his undersecretaries.

“We would like to assure (Congressman Zarate) that insofar as the DOJ is concerned ay we are not implementing a red-tagging policy  or something like that,” Guevarra said in a mix of English and Filipino.

When Zarate asked if the DOJ would remove the report from its website, Guevarra said: We’ll take another look at the report that was posted on the DOJ website. If there’s anything that we need to clarify, then we will issue an appropriate statement.”

Not simple case of name-calling

An impassioned Zarate told Guevarra and other DOJ officials that “this is not a simple case of calling us names.”

Zarate cited the example of Negros activist Zara Alvarez, who, before her murder, was red-tagged ferociously and was even part of an earlier DOJ-led petition to declare 600 activists as terrorists. The DOJ under Guevarra withdrew most of the names on its petition after the list was exposed as unverified.

“Puwede ka sampahan ng kaso na gawa-gawa, ang pinaka worse ay ‘yung buhay mo. ‘Yun ‘yung gusto kong ilinaw...this is a report, a wholesale accusation and it involves us and other private individuals,” said Zarate.(They can file trumped-up charges against us, but the worst is if our lives are at stake. That’s what I want to clarify.)

Zarate said the implications are even “graver” because the DOJ will have to prosecute complaints under the anti-terrorism law, which is widely seen as a crackdown on dissent and activism.

The DOJ has a very precarious role in the implementation of the anti-terror law, because the prosecutors under the department would handle the complaints sanctioned by the anti-terrorism council, of which Guevarra is a part.

“As a matter of policy we always resolve cases on the basis of the evidence presented before us, at least during my tenure as Secretary of Justice,” said Guevarra, who previously declined what could be his last nomination for Supreme Court justice because, he said, his services are most needed at the DOJ at a time when “law and order must be preserved and maintained.”

To defend the DOJ, Guevarra cited the work of the AO 35 task force which looks into the cases of extrajudicial killings.

Human rights groups, however, don’t trust this task force, citing unsatisfactory results thus far.

DOJ’s own statistics in the same report would show that in the 7 years of its existence, the task force has only 13 convictions to show out of 385 cases it has handled. Of these, 127 perpetrators have been cleared. –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.