Human rights group Karapatan strongly condemned the unlawful arrest of activists and cultural workers at Escalante City, Negros Occidental on September 18, 2019. Nine activists and artists, who were on their way to perform in an activity in time for the 34th commemoration of the 1985 Escalante Massacre, were illegally arrested and charged with trumped-up charges by elements of the police and the army.
“The unlawful arrest of nine cultural workers at Escalante City, once again based on trumped-up charges and planted evidence, is yet another desperate attempt by the military and police to quell the growing anger of the people of Negros and to erase the memory of the Marcos regime-perpetrated massacre of sugar farmers in Escalante in 1985. Even cultural work is criminalized by the fascist Duterte government. The de-facto martial law in Negros continues to manifest itself through the spiraling state of human rights in the region,” Karapatan vice-chairperson Reylan Vergara said.
“A mass arrest of cultural workers who want to commemorate the Escalante massacre a few days before the 47th year since the declaration of Marcos’ martial law concretely illustrates why repression is the rule of thumb under this government. The similarities between then and now are palpable,” he added.
At around 4 PM, the jeepney of nine cultural workers from Teatro Obrero’s mobile propaganda team were preparing for the Escalante Massacre commemoration when they were blocked by men in civilian clothes, bonnets, and masks. The perpetrators were later revealed to be operatives from the combined forces of the 79th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army and the Escalante City Police. The cultural workers were told to step down from the vehicle and to present a permit. Thereafter, the vehicle was “searched” and firearms, as well as Tanduay bottles supposedly for making Molotov cocktails, were suddenly “recovered.”
The nine individuals arrested were Teatro Obrero vice-chairperson Kenneth Serondo and members Carlo Apurado, Rolly Hernando, and Reynaldo Saura; National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) North Negros spokesperson Joel Guillero, Toboso chapter auditor Leon Charita, and member Benvenido Ducay; as well as KADAMAY Negros vice-chariperson Aiza Orbesa and their driver Toto Canilio. Their phones were also confiscated and their documentation of the search was deleted. They are currently detained at the Escalante City Police Station under trumped-up charges. The organizations targeted were already subjected to numerous incidents of red-tagging.
Vergara explained that the targeting of activists through trumped-up charges have become even more rampant following the creation of the AFP-PNP led Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action in 2017 (IACLA). “They have honed expertise in filing trumped-up charges through false and perjured testimonies, planted evidence and defective warrants. The case of illegal possession of firearms and explosives is the easiest to manufacture, given police authorities are also the officials responsible for the handling of evidence,” he further said, adding that the situation has worsened following the implementation of Memorandum Order No. 32, which placed Negros, Eastern Visayas, and Bicol under a state of emergency.
“Karapatan condemns this brazen violation of people’s rights and state repression. State terrorism is alive in Negros, amid the killings and recent cases of harassment and illegal arrests. Lawyers, human rights defenders, and even cultural workers are not exempt from the government’s viciousness. Art as a form of expression and an avenue for resistance, for remembering is constricted by fascist governments who have so much to fear. We demand for the immediate release of the nine cultural workers and an end to all attacks in Negros,” Vergara ended.