human rights in the Philippines

She’s just 20 and was accused of being a terrorist

Lian Buan

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She’s just 20 and was accused of being a terrorist

WOMEN'S RIGHTS. Hailey Pecayo, a 20-year-old activist, joins a panel of four young women activists at the UP Diliman on November 27, 2023, for the start of the 18-day campaign to end violence against women.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

'I do not accept the accusation that I am a terrorist. That's not me. I am a human rights defender,' says Hailey Pecayo

MANILA, Philippines – During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Metro Manila and nearby provinces – among the world’s longest lockdowns – Hailey Pecayo, 17 at the time, decided to become an activist.

In less than three years, she became one of the first to face – and win – government accusations of being a terrorist under the feared anti-terror law.

Mabigat siya, pero at some point, alam kong lahat naniniwala, kalakihan naniniwala na hindi ako terorista. Na isa akong human rights defender ,” Pecayo told Rappler in an interview done on the sideline of an event on Monday, November 27, kickstarting the 18-day campaign to end violence against women. (It’s heavy to bear, but at some point, I knew that everyone, if not most people, believe I am not a terrorist. That I am a human rights defender.)

Sued at 19 years old, and now 20 years old, Pecayo joins a long line of more hardened activists who had been charged with crimes usually used against the movement. To her misfortune, she had to face one of the toughest: the feared anti-terror law that became the most contested law in recent Philippine history, but was sustained for the most part by the Supreme Court.

Prosecutors cleared Pecayo on November 20 of two counts of terrorism stemming from two different incidents in July 2022 when she was accused of being a part of a group of alleged armed rebels who exchanged fire with the military. Pecayo’s wins follow a string of a sustained pattern in the last three years of activists winning cases filed against them by the country’s security officials.

She now fears for her safety, but the accusation and eventual victory had given her what many activists want and need: a platform.

“Ngayon mas magiging careful na. Wala eh, may platform na ako, kailangan ko siyang gamitin sa magandang bagay,” said Pecayo. (I will be more careful now. I can’t help it, I have a platform now, I need to use it for good.)

Her grandfather’s granddaughter

To become an activist was not what most 17-year-olds were doing to fight the boredom caused by those lockdowns, but Pecayo noticed something alarming: everywhere around her, especially in her home region of Southern Tagalog, there were human rights violations. It started with the frustration that fellow students did not have proper resources and access to the internet, to attend the online classes.

She joined Panday Sining Lipa, the cultural partner organization of the progressive Anakbayan. She transcribed interviews for them and wrote press releases.

When activists Lino Baez and Willy Capareño were arrested in Batangas in October 2021, part of the wide crackdown against the Left from the so-called search warrant factories of Metro Manila judges (that power by metro judges has since been scrapped by the Supreme Court), Pecayo took her activism a notch higher by joining Tanggol Batangan. It’s a human rights organization based in her home province of Batangas which, among others, responds to arrests and attacks of activists.

Pecayo joined the quick response team for Baez and Capareño, and had her first taste of red-tagging. The granddaughter of a retired police officer, Pecayo said she gained access to a military camp using her family connection, and overheard state agents talk about communists. She said that moment was a pivotal point for her. “Doon talaga [nasabi ko na] ‘grabe, ganito pala ‘yong nangyayari (At that moment I thought, this is really how grave the situation is).”

Activists have long accused the military of surveillance, abduction and enforced disappearances, but they rarely win these cases where they are the plaintiffs. So far, activists have only been winning cases where they are the defendants.

“Siguro nga mas nahirapan ang grandparents ko na i-digest ‘yong nangyari kasi una, hindi nila kinikilala ang trabaho ko noong bago-bago pa lang kasi walang suweldo. Sino ba namang gustong walang suweldo? (My grandparents took it the hardest because for one, they don’t understand my work, especially because it did not pay. Who wants a job without pay?)

But ever since the military filed a complaint against her under the anti-terror law, which could have put her in jail indefinitely had prosecutors filed a case in court, Pecayo said her grandfather understood her better.

“Malaki naman ‘yong changes, kasi simula nga noong nagkakaso ako, mas talagang tinatanggap na niya ‘yong trabahong ginagawa ko (There was a big difference because ever since I faced this complaint, he started to accept my work),” said Pecayo.

The accusations

On July 18, 2022, the 59th Infantry Battalion said they got into an encounter with a group of 16 allegedly armed rebels in Sitio Amatong, Barangay Ginhawa, Taysan in Batangas. Pecayo was supposedly one of the armed rebels, said the complaint.

Pecayo told prosecutors that from July 18 to 19 she was in San Isidro Sur in Batangas, “busy preparing for the upcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA) of the President,” an annual protest activity.

In a separate complaint, the 59th IB again claimed that Pecayo was part of an armed rebel group that exchanged fire with them on July 25 that same year in Barangay Malalim, Sanog, Lobo, Batangas. Pecayo said that on July 25 she was all the way in Quezon City to attend a rally. There, a man took photos of her, said Pecayo.

In both complaints, prosecutors cleared Pecayo and said “we find no sufficient evidence to indict respondents of the crimes charged.”

Pecayo, who is currently not studying after Grade 12 in high school, said, “Napamahal na ako sa human rights work (I’ve fallen in love with human rights work).”

“Lalo na kapag nakikipagsalamuha ako sa human rights victims, ‘yun ‘yung ano eh, kailangan maging matibay kasi kung sila mismong nakakaranas ay strong sila, dapat ako din,” she said.

(I affirm my work when I am with the human rights victims, because if they are strong despite their suffering, then I should be, too.)

She said once more: “Hindi ko tinatanggap ‘yong akusasyon na terorista ako. Hindi ako ‘yan; human rights defender ako.” (I do not accept the accusation that I am a terrorist. That’s not me. I am a human rights defender.) – with reports from Vince Therese Turqueza/Rappler.com

Vince Therese Turqueza is an intern with Rappler’s Justice, Human Rights and Crime Cluster. She is a 2nd year BS Clothing Technology student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Learn more about Rappler’s internship program here.

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Lian Buan

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