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MANILA, Philippines – In a press conference surrounded by government and military officials, the two environmental activists who had gone missing in Bataan declared that they were indeed abducted by the military on September 2.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) held a press conference on Tuesday, September 19, at the Plaridel Municipal Hall in Bulacan, to show that Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro had “voluntarily surrendered” to the military.
“Ang totoo po e dinukot kami ng mga militar sakay ng van. Napilitan din kami na sumurrender dahil pinagbantaan ‘yung buhay namin,” Castro said.
(The truth is we were abducted by the military onboard a van. We were coerced to surrender because they threatened our lives.)
Their statements disproved the earlier statement of National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya that the two were “safe and sound” under military custody. Environmental advodates and human rights groups had warned that the had been coerced into executing their sworn affidavits.
“Hindi rin namin ginusto na mapunta kami sa kustodiya ng mga militar. Hindi rin totoo ‘yung laman ng affidavit dahil ginawa ‘yun, pinirmahan ‘yun sa loob ng kampo ng militar. Wala na kaming magagawa sa mga pagkakataon na ‘yun,” Castro said.
(We didn’t choose to be under military custody. The contents of the affidavits are not true because those were made, those were signed inside the military camp. We didn’t have any choice at the time.)
Tamano corroborated Castro’s statements.
“That night, on September 2, we were walking on the road when someone abducted us,” Tamano said in Filipino, recounted the events leading to their abduction.
“An SUV stopped in front of us, took us away, and coerced us to come with them. That’s the truth. We thought it was a syndicate. But they know us. And then…” Tamano exhaled and didn’t finish her sentence.
Rappler sought the comment of Malaya, who earlier claimed that Tamano and Castro were trying to leave the communist movement, but he had yet to respond as of posting time. This story will be updated once he does.
Sticking to the story
Even after Castro and Tamano categorically said they were abducted, NTF-ELCAC and military officials insisted that they were in the aid of the two activists.
NTF-ELCAC Director Alexander Umpar said they stand by the report of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and called Castro and Tamano “victims of terrorism.”
“Kailangan natin tulungan pa rin ‘yung ating dalawang nagbalik loob sa ‘tin sa gobyerno, ano pa mang dahilan ‘yan,” said Umpar. “We are here.”
(We need to still help these two who returned to the side of the government, whatever their reasons may be.)
Lieutenant Colonel Ronel dela Cruz said the military only acted on September 10, after receiving a tip on the whereabouts of the two activists. Dela Cruz said they didn’t know what the two were saying in the press conference.
“Ang pinanghahawakan po namin ngayon kasi pumirma po sila ng kustodiya po, pumirma po sila ng papel,” Dela Cruz said. (What we are holding on to is that they signed the custody [form], they signed the paper.)
According to Dela Cruz’s account, on September 11, his team went to the location that their informant had given them. Negotiations were reportedly made until the wee hours of the morning of September 12, when they arrived at the camp of the 70th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. Dela Cruz said he met the two women around 7 am that day.
He also claimed that there was no intervention when Tamano and Castro made their sworn affidavits, and that only Tamano’s parents and the lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office were present beside the two.
“Klarong-klaro po sa militar lahat ng proseso from tanggapin namin sila hanggang ngayon po na punto na ‘to,” said Dela Cruz. (The whole process was very clear from the military from the time we received them until this very moment.)
“I think we have heard enough,” the host of the press conference said, after Plaridel Mayor Jocell Vistan Casaje gave the final remarks.
“And at this point we reached the end and conclusion of this presscon,” the host added.
The host was wrapping up when a reporter asked if they would still accept questions. Castro responded, “Ako po papayag po akong magpatanong (I’ll entertain questions).”
A few moments later, however, the livestream of the press conference on the NTF-ELCAC Facebook page was halted. Upon checking, the livestream has been deleted from the page as well as from the Facebook page of the Plaridel Municipal Hall.
Call for freedom
Groups staged protest outside the Plaridel Municipal Hall where the press conference took place.
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of rights group Karapatan, said on Tuesday that the two women should be freed from military custody immediately.
Palabay warned of the “possible illegal detention, coercion, and psychological torture” that the two may face under prolonged custody.
“They should be safely released, be met by their parents, legal counsels, friends, and fellow human rights defenders who have been searching for them since the day of their abduction,” said Palabay.
Edre Olalia, chairperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, questioned the legality of holding the two in custody. “There is no legal basis to hold them any second longer and they should be freed forthwith and if restrained illegally, can walk away from their custodians.”
Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas praised the courage of Tamano and Castro.
“We commend their bravery in spilling the truth even in the midst of military generals and red-taggers, even as we express grave concern for their safety and security following their disclosure,” Brosas said.
Castro herself said that what they want highlighted at the press conference is the “government’s fascism against activists” who were only protesting the big-ticket reclamation projects in Manila Bay.
The 21-year-old emphasized the plight of fisherfolk in the area who are losing their livelihood. “That’s the real issue,” she said in Filipino.
Castro, is a psychology major at the Bulacan State University, is a community volunteer for AKAP KA Manila Bay, an alliance of fisherfolk, youth, and church members. Tamano is the program coordinator for the Ecumenical Bishops Forum. Tamano is a business economics graduate of Bulacan State University.
On September 3, various groups sounded the alarm on their reported abduction in Orion, Bataan. Prior to the incident Castro was visited by men who introduced themselves as belonging to the military, offering help to “clear her name.” – Rappler.com