Butuan City

Cops arrest aging, ailing activist on murder, kidnapping warrants

Herbie Gomez

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Cops arrest aging, ailing activist on murder, kidnapping warrants

GUERRILLA? A 2018 photo shared by a Gabriela Women's Party official during International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, noting that Atel Hijos was running for a local post in Butuan City.

Jang Monte Hernandez

Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay says accusations against septuagenarian activist Atheliana Hijos are preposterous because she's frail

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Authorities arrested on Tuesday night, August 30, the ailing 76-year-old secretary-general for Caraga region of the women’s rights watchdog Gabriela in Nasipit, Agusan del Norte, claiming she had fought soldiers in 2019, and kidnapped a militiaman in 2018.

Brigadier General Romeo Caramat Jr., Caraga police director, said the elderly woman, Atheliana “Atel” Hijos was the fourth most wanted communist terrorist in the Caraga region.

Authorities said they arrested Hijos at District 8, Barangay Kinabjangan, Nasipit, Agusan del Norte around 6 pm on Tuesday.

They had warrants of arrest for Hijos on charges of murder, kidnapping, and serious illegal detention, the same cases that numerous red-tagged and arrested activists are facing in court.

The arrest warrants were issued by regional courts in the two Agusan provinces.

Police alleged that Hijos was among those who fought soldiers in a fierce encounter in Agusan del Norte on November 20, 2019.

Police said a soldier, Corporal Mario Suson, was killed in that encounter with rebels that allegedly included the then 73-year-old Hijos.

Authorities also accused the septuagenarian of kidnapping, detaining, and threatening a militiaman in Barangay Kolambungan, Sibagat, Agusan del Sur on December 29, 2018.

However, various Facebook posts from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 all show a frail senior citizen needing physical aid from companions and engaged in legal activities.

In 2016, a companion had to help Hijos to clear a farm ditch at the Lumad Alcadev school in Han-yaan, Lianga town, Surigao del Sur, when she joined a mission with Makabayan bloc lawmakers.

Hijos has been a long time advocate of indigenous people’s rights CARAGA, which made her a frequent target of red-tagging.

In 2018, on the same month she was supposed to be engaged in a fierce encounter, an officer of Gabriela Women’s party posted an International Women Human Rights Defenders Day photo showing Hijos outside former Palace of the Spanish Governor-General in Intramuros, Manila, noting that Hijos was “running for a local elective post in Butuan City”.

Multiple ailments

Cristina Palabay, the secretary-general of the human rights watchdog Karapatan, called the allegations against Hijos preposterous, pointing out that the aging activist had been diagnosed with pulmonary disease, and was also suffering from hypertension.

“She already had a mild stroke and has been in a wheelchair because she already finds it difficult to stand up and walk,” Palabay told Rappler.

Hijos, she said, was also diagnosed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“How can an elderly woman, with such frail built like Atel’s, possibly commit all the crimes alleged against her?” Palabay asked.

Palabay’s group called Hijos’ arrest a “reprehensible act that shows how the judicial system is being weaponized against human rights defenders, following numerous other cases of trumped up charges against and arrests of human rights defenders in the Caraga region.”

Karapatan pointed to a pattern of arrests of activists and development workers in Mindanao who were red-tagged and accused of similar offenses.

The Karapatan list includes:

  • Physician Naty Castro, 
  • Human rights workers Renalyn Tejero and Teresita Naul
  • Women’s rights activists Nerita de Castro
  • Teacher Gary Campos
  • Development workers Julieta Gomez and Niezel Velasco
  • Peasant group leaders Virgilio Lincuna and Marcela Diaz
  • Church worker Aldeem Yanez
  • Indigenous rights activist Gloria Campos Tumalon

“Many of them remain detained due to similar charges,” read part of Karapatan’s statement.

The group counted 92 political prisoners in the Caraga region alone, 22 of whom are women, as of July.

It also said it was “gravely concerned that with all these cases filed in Caraga courts, the region has become a warrant factory” against activists.

Hijos is a former public school teacher who is among those who founded the Women’s Alliance for True Change (WATCH) – Mindanao, a broad-based movement of women who resisted the Marcos dictatorship. – Inday Espina-Varona/ Rappler.com

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Herbie Gomez

Herbie Salvosa Gomez is coordinator of Rappler’s bureau in Mindanao, where he has practiced journalism for over three decades. He writes a column called “Pastilan,” after a familiar expression in Cagayan de Oro, tackling issues in the Southern Philippines.