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MANILA, Philippines – Youth environmental activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro came face to face with the army commander implicated in their abduction when they went to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for a preliminary investigation on Tuesday, November 7.
Tamano and Castro, visibly somber, arrived at the DOJ Tuesday afternoon to file their counter-affidavit in the perjury complaint filed by Lieutenant Colonel Ronnel dela Cruz, the battalion commander of the 70th Infantry Batallion (IB) of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.
It was the army’s legal counter-offensive ever since Tamano and Castro turned around in a fateful press conference last September 19, accusing the military of abducting them and holding them captive.
Signs of discomfort were evident in the two young activists, as they occasionally looked down on the ground and were hesitant to talk to the media.
Tamano and Castro met Dela Cruz for the first time since their abduction and appearance on September 19.
While Castro and Tamano are able to recall only the first names or nicknames of the people they saw at the camp where they were allegedly held captive, they saw markings of the 70th IB there, of which Dela Cruz is commander, they told the Supreme Court in a separate petition for a writ of amparo.
The amparo petition seeks a protective order, a sort of a restraining order, against several people, one of whom is Dela Cruz. The army commander, by his own admission in the perjury complaint, met Castro and Tamano on September 12. In his version of events, the two indicated they were surrendering voluntarily that is why he facilitated the processing of their surrenders.
Dino de Leon, the activists’ lawyer from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), questioned why the two would only supposedly surrender on September 12, when there were witnesses to their abduction on September 2.
“Hindi pa rin na-e-explain until at this point in time despite the fact na may reports na may abduction sa Orion [on] September 2, lumabas lang sina Jhed and Jonila sa poder ng militar 12 days after,” De Leon told reporters on Tuesday.
(Until now, it has yet to be explained at this point in time, despite the fact that there were reports of abduction in Orion on September 2, Jhed and Jonila only left the military’s custody 12 days after.)
In their counter-affidavit, Castro and Tamano admitted that they were indeed able to talk to agents from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) during captivity, but explained that they didn’t tell the CHR of their abduction then because “we were unsure if they will be able to help us as we were still inside the military camp.”
“We could only really depend on the public – the groups that mobilized to look for us – because we thought anyone within the vicinity of the military could not be trusted,” they said.
De Leon also questioned Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla’s impartiality, since the DOJ chief previously made comments on the young activists’ case. Remulla earlier said that Tamano and Castro accused the military of kidnapping due to “peer pressure.” Despite criticisms, the DOJ chief stood by his remarks.
“For us, the reason why joint counter-affidavit ad cautelam, ‘yon kasi kami ay kinuwestiyon din ang impartiality ng DOJ under the direct control of no less than the secretary of justice and National Prosecution Service. So kung impartial investigation ‘yon, kami ay nananalig. Pero we would like to put on record na right from the very start, we question ‘yong impartiality ng preliminary investigation,” the FLAG lawyer explained.
(For us, the reason why we filed a joint counter-affidavit ad cautelam is because we’re questioning, too, the impartiality of the DOJ under the direct control of no less than the Secretary of Justice and the National Prosecution Service. So if the investigation would be impartial, we could only hope. But we would like to put on record that right from the very start, we question the impartiality of the preliminary investigation.)
Tamano and Castro, who are environmental activists doing ground work on reclamation in Bataan, were first reported missing by progressive groups, prompting the probe of the Commission on Human Rights. Weeks later, the country’s security officials said the two activists were already “safe and sound” because they allegedly “voluntarily surrendered” to the military.
The government, particularly during Rodrigo Duterte’s term, liked to present “surrenderees” to encourage testimonies against progressive groups.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the Duterte-invented task force at the forefront of campaigning against the communist movement, held a press conference on September 15 to say that the two had surrendered and were “safe and sound.” Castro and Tamano were not present in that press conference.
The two would later devise a way to be freed, which they executed on September 19 before mainstream media, when they went off-script during an NTF-ELCAC-organized presser to belie claims they had surrendered.