[OPINION] Jhed and Jonila’s fight for justice

Tony La Viña, Bernardine de Belen

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[OPINION] Jhed and Jonila’s fight for justice

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'How can the same system that demands for the truth crucify defenders who are bravely telling the truth?'

One of the biggest national news stories in 2023 was the abduction and surfacing of Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano. While Jonila is a community organizer of the Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing, and Environment in Manila Bay (Akap Ka Manila Bay), Jhed is a program coordinator of the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum. The two are young environmental activists who fight against the reclamation of Manila Bay. The projects in the area are known to have already displaced families, disturbed the ecosystems, and polluted living spaces as well as various fishes’ habitats.

The two disappeared on September 2, 2023  with only a shoe and slipper left behind. A couple of weeks after their disappearance, the police confirmed that Jhed and Jonila were in a safe house. According to them, the news about their abduction was inaccurate as the two approached the authorities for help.

After this news broke out, on September 19, 2023, the NTF-ELCAC held a press conference with Jhed and Jonila to convey that the two actually surrendered. However, in the same presscon, Jhed and Jonila bravely confirmed that they were, instead, abducted by military forces. They were forced to surrender and sign their sworn affidavits because their lives were threatened. Because of the clamor of human rights organizations after this conference, the two got reunited with their families.

Despite their safe return though, a constant threat is dangling over their heads. For one, environmental activists and human rights defenders are already at risk in the Philippines; there are still 12 recorded enforced disappearance cases as of now under Bongbong Marcos. Another thing is that they defied the state force’s demand for them to cooperate, their defiance broadcasted to the public at that. The task force even said in a statement that they felt “betrayed.”

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Supreme Court intervention

The danger their circumstances pose led the two young activists to seek help from the Supreme Court. They filed a petition against Lieutenant Colonel Ronnel Dela Cruz and members of the 70th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army; Police Captain Carlito Buco and members of the Philippine National Police Bataan; National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya; and the NTF-ELCAC. In the petition, they requested writs of amparo and habeas data; it also included temporary protection order, permanent protection order, and production order. In the petition, they recalled threats said to them during interrogation as well such as, “Pagtatabihin namin kayo sa isang hukay (We’ll place you side by side in the same grave).”

Fortunately, the Supreme Court made the right decision by granting the two activists a temporary protection order, writs of amparo and habeas data. In the Supreme Court’s decision, they stated that, “elements of enforced disappearance were present, specifically that petitioners were forcibly taken on September 2, 2023” proved by statements in the petition. The Court also concluded that “there was an established violation or threat to the life, liberty, or security of petitioners by respondents. The writs are called to be issued for reasons so obvious on the mere face of the Petition.”

While this is a great development in their case as it should provide protection and validate their enforced disappearance, a mere week later, they are served with a warrant of arrest from a municipal trial court in Bulacan. The warrant was for charges of oral defamation filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ). How ironic is it that while the Supreme Court recognizes the violence done to these activists by the state forces, they get a warrant for telling the truth? Thankfully, the two activists were able to post bail and acquired their release order.

Amidst these tiny mercies though, we must ask how the justice system in the Philippines can reconcile issuing protection to these young activists while also charging them with oral defamation in the same breath? How can the same system that demands for the truth crucify defenders who are bravely telling the truth? Why are victims of human rights violations being bombarded with even more attacks? 

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The bigger issue of enforced disappearances

While we recognize the victory of Jhed and Jonila in the Supreme Court, there is still much adversity to face and fight. This is not uncommon when it comes to cases of enforced disappearances. 

For Jhed and Jonila, their writs of amparo and temporary protection order are yet to be implemented, and their abductors remain free. 

The 12 cases of enforced disappearance under Bongbong Marcos also remain unresolved; the victims are still not surfaced. Cordillera activists Bazoo de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan for example are still missing nearly after a year after they were abducted.

These injustices against desaparecidos of the present administration and the ones that have come before are not new.

An example of this is Palparan’s case. In 2018, he was finally convicted for the abduction of Karen Empeño and Shirley Cadapan in 2006. This was made possible by key witness Raymond Manalo who saw the two in the camp as he was abducted as well but was able to escape. This statement was also used to file a case against Palparan for the abduction of Manalo which was ironically dismissed. 

Another is Jonas Burgos’ case. While the Supreme Court ruled that the Philippine army took him and that he was an enforced disappearance victim, he was not surfaced and a suspect identified in court – Harry Baliaga – was acquitted. 

Most of the time, the justice system’s at odds with the desaparecidos. While the grief is palpable with every loss in court, it is rarely ever a surprise. The families of the victims have trained to brace themselves for the worst when they should not have to. How come that the victims end up being violated even more because of the justice system? 

The victories – such as the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Jhed and Jonila’s petition – in the world of enforced disappearance victims are few and far between. And so, we celebrate when we can, and we continue to fight and struggle, always. We hope that someday, the victories are the rule and not the exception.

Surface all desaparecidos! Stop the attacks! Hands off Jhed and Jonila! –

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. 

Bernardine de Belen is a magna cum laude Humanites graduate of Ateneo de Manila University who currently works as a researcher and program coordinator at the Klima Center of the Manila Observatory.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    Noted: “How can the same system that demands for the truth crucify defenders who are bravely telling the truth?” There is a disconnect among our courts, especially the SC and the lower courts. This may be because the NTF-ELCAC, AFP, and DOJ can easily sway the lower courts in their favor. Professional, personal, psychological, social, and Presidential appointments are factors affecting this situation.

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