environmental defenders

Activists in gutsy press conference indicted for ’embarrassing AFP’

Lian Buan

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Activists in gutsy press conference indicted for ’embarrassing AFP’

ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS. Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano arrive at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) after accusing the military of abduction in a Bulacan press conference on September 19, 2023. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler

Jire Carreon/Rappler

'Jhed and Jonila saw the press conference as their only way out, and it is absurd to expect them to not take the avenue they saw as their only means to survive,' says their lawyer

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted two young environmental activists for slander or grave oral defamation for “embarrassing and putting [the Armed Forces of the Philippines] in bad light” in the press conference where the pair, expected to be presented as rebel returnees, turned around and said the military abducted them.

“Seemingly, respondents employed machinations and took advantage of the benevolence of the 70th Infantry Battalion and the Armed Forces of the Philippines [AFP] to embarrass and put them in bad light,” said the resolution dated December 12, 2023, and received by the activists’ lawyers on Monday, January 29.

Grave oral defamation has a maximum punishment of 6-month imprisonment if found guilty. Jonila Castro, 23 years old; and Jhed Tamano, 22 years old, have a pending petition for the writ of amparo before the Supreme Court, seeking protection from members of the AFP, including the Army’s 70th IB commander Lieutenant Colonel Ronnel Dela Cruz who filed the DOJ complaint.

The DOJ dismissed the perjury complaint against Castro and Tamano.

Castro and Tamano are the 14th documented case of what activists call as “fake surrenders,” where people are abducted and supposedly coerced into executing an affidavit of surrender.

In their version, Castro and Tamano played the psychological war with their captors and lured them into a press conference, where the two announced they were abducted by the military. They were able to come home that day after 17 days in captivity.

In Dela Cruz’s version, the two voluntarily surrendered to them on September 12, or days ahead of the fateful September 19 press conference. The September 12 meeting is confirmed by Castro and Tamano, except to the activists’ version, it was a “surrender” made under duress and they were waiting for the right time to execute their plan.

In an earlier interview with Rappler, the activists said having a press conference covered by mainstream media was their best chance to be released safely. After their stunning statement, local government officials of Bulacan intervened and made sure the activists did not go back to the military camp. Instead, the local officials turned over Castro and Tamano to their colleagues who had been campaigning that the two be resurfaced.

For DOJ prosecutors, they found probable cause to believe that Castro and Tamano “consciously, intentionally and on purpose waited and chose the press conference which would be held in public to air their grievance and plight.”

For the prosecutors, “they have every opportunity from the time they were taken in the custody of the 70th IB to disclose the abduction incident.”

“Do we really expect Jhed and Jonila to supposedly thank their abductors, trust them completely, and not speak out at the first instance they think they could be saved?” said Dino De Leon, lawyer of Castro and Tamano. “Jhed and Jonila saw the press conference as their only way out, and it is absurd to expect them to not take the avenue they saw as their only means to survive.”

The prosecutors also noted that Castro and Tamano had the chance to meet a Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) lawyer, and a representative from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Castro and Tamano said they could not ask for help from the PAO and CHR personnel out of fear. “The fear of reprisal from the military was at that point speculative and imaginary,” said the DOJ resolution.

De Leon said that his clients were not given access to lawyers of their own choosing at the time, “and after enduring psychological torture, naturally distrusted people presented to them by their abductors.”

“Is that what we expect from these two young women who had to endure the nightmarish experience of being taken and being uncertain every day if they can still have a tomorrow?” said De Leon.

From 1986 to present, there have been 1,911 cases of enforced disappearances or people, mostly activists, who are still missing up to now. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.