MANILA — Many Filipinos who have never been outside Luzon may very well wonder where Samar is. Many may even be stymied if confronted with queries as to where Eastern Visayas is in the Philippine map. In any case, both the region and the province are seldom featured in the pages of Manila-based broadsheets. They should be, if only because of the alarming human rights situation and the continuing violations against the civil, political and human rights of activists and ordinary civilians there.
Recently, writer and poet Ericson Acosta was arrested in San Jorge in Samar . Earlier, National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Eduardo Sarmiento was arrested, as well as peasant leader Dario Tomada.
The Alliance of Concerned Samareños (ACOS) recently released to media an initial fact sheet on the Catbalogan 5. ACOS is signatory to a support statement calling for Acosta’s release, part of which says: “It behooves the Aquino government to forge favorable conditions in the conduct of its peace efforts by releasing political prisoners.”
The National Democratic Front in the Eastern Visayas (NDF-EV) has already assailed the Benigno Aquino III government for brushing aside provisions of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) with regard the continuing human rights violations in the region and the illegal arrest of its peace consultants.
According to the NDF-EV, Aquino casts a shadow on the peace process with its “yawning indifference.”
The Catbalogan 5
When barangay officials in Bay-ang, San Jorge raised the alarm after Acosta was arrested by the military, human rights groups led by Katungod-Sinirangan Bisayas (Katungod-SB) immediately looked for Acosta in military detachments and detention facilities all over Samar. They asked civilians around military camps if soldiers had brought in captives; inquired with the wardens and jail guards if they had new prisoners accused of being “rebels.”
A jail guard in a Catbalogan jail answered in the affirmative and revealed that there were already five such “rebels” in their custody. One of the prisoners was brought to the jail in August 2010, but the others rest have been in prison for as long as since 2004.
It was then Katungod –SB discovered the Catbalogan 5. After the human rights group found Acosta and were told that the cultural worker had already been remitted to the Calbayog sub-provincial jail, they realized that they had to also give attention to the plight of the other political detainees.
The Catbalogan 5 is composed of farmers Noel Galvez, Simon Gabijan, Jesus Bacnotan and spouses Loreto and Beatriz Gabuay. Except for Loreto’s wife Beatriz, all of them face criminal charges related to NPA actions in Samar. Beatriz “chose” to stay in detention, and, according to reports, insist that she would not leave her husband in jail out of fear for his safety and life. She said that military men continue to visit their barrio to harass her, even when Loreto was already behind bars.
Based on signed interviews and fact sheets initially forwarded by human rights volunteers in Samar, the Catbalogan 5 underwent the same, if not worse circumstances of illegal arrest suffered by political prisoners like Acosta, Tomada and Sarmiento. Their personal accounts and testimonies regarding their ordeal expose how some, if not all, of them were subjected to torture and gross human rights violations while under the custody of authorities who arrested, and later accused them of false and manufactured charges to justify their continued detention.
According to human rights groups, the charges against the farmers range from robbery to multiple murder, were made in connection with high-profile “tactical offensives” launched by the NPA in the last decade. From these offensive actions, the NPA carted away several high-powered firearms from the AFP and the PNP, while government forces usually suffered heavy casualties.
Ordinary farmers tortured, accused of being NPA
Noel Galvez, 42, is a farmer from Barangay Buloan in Calbiga town. He was arrested in August 2010 as he was accompanying other barrio residents to register with the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Calbiga in time for the barangay elections which took place the following October.
Sources say that Galvez, who had long been accused by the military of being a NPA supporter, was convinced that he should avail of the army’s offer of reconciliation especially after the Aquino administration promised a better future for ordinary citizens. Galvez had earlier submitted himself for “clearance” at a military detachment for him to be able to “campaign freely” for a barrio politician.
Despite this “clearance,” he was still arrested and charged with frustrated murder and multiple murder in relation to an NPA raid in Barangay Binanggaran, Calbiga. Two troopers were reportedly killed, while two high-powered rifles were seized by the NPA in that December 17, 2009 incident.
Galvez said that he has witnesses to prove that he was working on his farm when the raid happened, but a certain Capt. Renante Morales of the 8th ID insisted that it was Galvez he saw a hundred meters from his position. Capt. Morales said that Galvez in fact wore a green shirt, and served as “blocking force” in the rebel attack.
Simon Gabijan, 48, of Barangay Lipata in Paranas town said that he was fishing with his family all morning until noon on February 28, 2002. He had learned that the NPA raided the Municipal Police Station (MPS) in nearby Motiong, from the usual barrio word-of-mouth when they got home. Based on information from actual news reports, the early morning raid of the NPA resulted in three casualties for the PNP, while the rebels seized at least 15 high-powered firearms from the poorly-manned police detachment.
After a few months, Gabijan received a subpoena. In it he was accused of participating in the raid. He immediately went to the Motiong police station to clear his name. At the station, the local officers assured Gabijan that there was nothing to worry about – they told him that the rebels who participated in the raid were all young men so it was unlikely that Gabijan was actually involved.
The chief of police who identified himself as Rivera told Gabijan to ask a Judge Jakosalem about his case. The judge in turn, advised Gabijan to get a lawyer so that he could file a motion to quash. He attempted to get a lawyer, but given his limited resources – and probably banking on the assurances made by the police officers – Gabijan just went on to try his luck in Manila.
Several months after he returned to Samar, Gabijan was arrested on the strength of a warrant of arrest for criminal charges in connection with another NPA offensive. He was accused of involvement in the March 17, 2004 raid on the 34th IB and PNP station in San Jose de Buan town, several kilometers away from Paranas.
According to a statement released by the NPA’s Efren Martires Command in the Eastern Visayas, 13 soldiers and one policeman were killed in the raid. The NPA suffered three casualties but seized M16 and M14 rifles, and several pistols from government forces.
Gabijan said that he was still in Manila when the raid occurred – he had returned to Samar only in June of 2004. Three policemen have testified against Gabijan. They claimed that they actually saw him around 4:30 a.m. participating in the rebel attack. Gabijan expressed wonderment over how the policemen could have possibly seen him in the darkness of pre-dawn.
Jesus Bacnotan, 64, also of Barangay Lipata, was charged with several criminal cases for alleged involvement in the NPA raid in Motiong. It was only in 2008, however, that he was arrested – abducted, rather – by soldiers from the 8th ID.
On November 20, 2008, at around 11p.m., men who identified themselves as soldiers knocked on the Bacnotan family’s door and asked for Jesus. Jesus, roused from his sleep, opened the door and was immediately blindfolded and pushed inside a vehicle. Because of the long drive, he thought that he would be brought to the 8th ID headquarters in Barangay Maulong, Catbalogan. At around 3 a.m. based on his estimates, he was made to ride another vehicle and was told that he would be brought to a hospital. He said that he was brought somewhere in Tacloban City or Leyte.
Bacnotan said that he spent three nights under military custody where he underwent continuous tactical interrogation by several military men who took turns in questioning him. He was blindfolded the entire time. He realized that he was brought to Leyte because he saw the San Juanico Bridge when his blindfold was finally removed – aboard another vehicle bound for the 8th ID headquarters in Maulong.
It was only then that he was turned over to the police. He was informed that he was being charged with rebellion, multiple murder, frustrated murder and robbery when he was brought to the Catbalogan Hall of Justice. Bacnotan, already a senior citizen at the time of his arrest, was made to stay another three nights in the Maulong military barracks before he was remitted to the provincial jail in Catbalogan.
Loreto Gabuay, also a senior citizen at 63, is a farmer from Barangay Salay in Paranas. He was also charged with involvement with several NPA actions such as the Motiong and San Jose de Buan raid, and even in the ambuscades by the NPA in Barangay Babaclayon and Lawaan in Paranas. Gabuay said that he was either at home with his family or tending his nearby farm when the incidents happened.
Gabuay was arrested by soldiers from the 34th IB on September 23, 2008. At around 3 a.m., soldiers surrounded their residence in Barangay Salay. His family refused to obey the order to open the door. At daybreak, soldiers broke down their door home and searched for “concealed weapons.” When they found nothing, the soldiers took Loreto with them. The soldiers did not carry, or show them a search warrant or warrant of arrest.
For fear that Gabuay would be summarily executed, his wife Beatriz, 48, begged the soldiers to spare his husband and asked that she be brought with them. They were both blindfolded and taken to the 8th ID headquarters in Maulong.
At the military barracks, Loreto was repeatedly tortured and coerced to admit that he was a NPA commander. His interrogators promised him stable means of livelihood if he surrendered. He was turned over to the police where he was made to sign some documents and was informed of the charges filed against him. After ten months, Beatriz was released.
More than a year after she was released, soldiers returned to Barangay Salay looking for Beatriz. They said that they had an arrest warrant for her. Beatriz returned to the Catbalogan jail to inform his husband that she was still being harassed by the military. They solicited the help of the jail warden, who promptly advised Beatriz to check with the Hall of Justice if there was indeed a standing arrest warrant against her. She learned that there was none, and, in any case, Beatriz refused to return to Barangay Salay because she is convinced that the military would not stop harassing her.
While the charges filed against these farmers are currently handled by lawyers from the Public Attorneys’ Office (PAO), the Catbalogan 5 appeal to concerned institutions, human rights advocates, and lawyers to look into their plight.
Similarities in the Acosta and Sarmiento arrests
Writer Acosta was arrested without warrant while conducting research on the human rights situation in Barangay Bay-ang in San Jorge last February 13. His counter affidavit states that “he was physically and psychologically tortured” when he was forced to undergo continuous tactical interrogation for three days in a military camp in San Jorge. While his supporters maintain that he is a free-lance journalist and cultural worker, the AFP tags Acosta as a “top-ranking personality of the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines).”
The case of illegal possession of explosives against Acosta – filed by the San Jorge PNP and elements from the army’s 34th Infantry Battalion who allegedly recovered a hand grenade from Acosta upon arrest – is currently with the Samar provincial prosecutor’s office for evaluation.
NDFP consultant Sarmiento, like fellow consultant Alan Jasminez who was arrested in Bulacan last February 14, is formally covered by the JASIG of the GPH-NDF Peace Talks. However, Jasminez and Sarmiento were unable to participate in the resumption of the talks held in Oslo, Norway last February, as both are still detained at Camp Crame in Quezon City.
Curiously, a fragmentation grenade was also allegedly found in the possession of Sarmiento when he was arrested in the vicinity of a shopping mall in Alabang, Muntinlupa on February 24, 2009. The NDF-EV, through its spokesperson Fr. Santiago Salas, said Sarmiento, who was then in Manila to attend consultations, was actually abducted, tortured and held incommunicado for several days. The AFP then announced, through a press statement dated March 3, 2009, that Sarmiento was arrested by joint elements from the army intelligence and the PNP-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) by virtue of a warrant of arrest for arson.
For Sarmiento’s arrest, a P2 million ($46.5 thousand) bounty was also reportedly awarded by the AFP to an informant. The AFP claimed that Sarmiento is the secretary of the CPP’s Eastern Visayas Regional Party Committee and member of the Central Committee of the CPP-NDFP and the NPA.
Inopacan “Mass Graves”
The “mass graves” in Inopacan, Southern Leyte were in the headlines since 2006 when prominent personalities such as former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo were among those tagged by the Arroyo administration’s Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) as perpetrators of this particular case of “communist purging.”
One of those implicated was Vincent Borja, a Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) coordinator for the Eastern Visayas. Arrested in May of 2007, Borja was released only last October after being cleared of several other trumped-up murder charges filed in Leyte.
Political prisoners tagged by the AFP as “top NPA leaders” such as Paterno Opo and Jaime Soledad are also being held for the Inopacan murders. Before they were charged with other common crimes, Jaime and his wife Clarita were abducted by armed men in a convenience store in Bacoor, Cavite in March 2008 .
Those accused assert that this “mass grave” issue is a mere orchestration by the previous government as part of Oplan Bantay Laya. Human rights groups in the Visayas found that the skeletal remains of seven individuals alleged to have been buried in Inopacan appeared to have been “already used” in earlier murder charges to implicate Soledad. The bodies were earlier reported to have been exhumed from another “mass grave” in Baybay, Leyte in June of 2000.
However, illegal arrests based on this trumped-up charge continue – even after the dismantling of the IALAG.
Dario Tomada was arrested in Binan, Laguna by elements of the Intelligence Service of the AFP (ISAFP) on July, 22, 2010 and was charged with 15 counts of murder related to the Inopacan “mass graves.” Tomada was the founding Secretary-General of the regional peasant organization Samahan han Gudti nga Parag-uma ha Sinirangan Bisayas (SAGUPA-SB). He served as Chairman of SAGUPA-SB from 2001 to 2005, until he was forced to flee the militarized region after a frustrated attempt on his life by military death squads.
The 8th Infantry Division, which covers the whole of Eastern Visayas, was under the command of Jovito Palparan in 2005.
Aside from these high-profile cases, peasants from upland barangays in Samar share stories of so-called “rebel-returnees” who were actually arrested by the military in the most uncommon of circumstances.
During a visit, Acosta told human rights volunteers about a story that the 8th ID released last January. It was about “Jane,” – a “scorned 20- year old NPA amazon who was almost raped by her comrades” – who supposedly surrendered on her own volition to the 34th IB headquarters in San Jose de Buan.
However, local townsfolk could attest that the military arrested Jocelyn Gabin – not “Jane” – a resident of the upland Barangay Cataydungan, while she was attending the “patron” or San Jose de Buan town fiesta.
All the farmers who became political prisoners were arrested under different circumstances, and all of them insist on their innocence and decry the charges made against them. They assert that they were never part of the armed offensives of the military said that they were involved in. They were, as they termed it, “ ordinary barrio folk.” One said that he was in fact at home when the NPA offensive which the military said he was part of took place. Another was in far away Manila, trying to make a living employed in a few menial jobs. As for the others, they were as should have been expected of farmers, tending their farms when the NPA actions transpired. It just so happened that their homes and farms were located in the interior barrios of Samar marked as “NPA guerilla zones” by the AFP.
In the meantime, if for a moment the possibility that the five farmers were actually involved or have been civilian supporters of the NPA is admitted, given that their homes and farms were located in the interior barrios of Samar marked as “NPA guerilla zones” by the AFP, human rights groups insist that the detainees should be accorded humane treatment and their rights to receive legal counsel should be upheld. The groups point out that ordinary farmers always suffer the brunt of military abuse: they suffered under the killing spree that was the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s Oplan Bantay Laya, and now they are being subjected to intensified militarization under the guise of “team work and solidarity” courtesy of the Aquino regime’s Oplan Bayanihan.
Observers say that the least that could be done is for the arresting police and military forces in the cases of the Catbalogan 5 be charged under Republic Act 9745 or the Anti-Torture Law.The Anti-Torture Law criminalizes all forms of torture — physical, mental, psychological and pharmacological. It disallows any justification for torture and other inhuman punishments. Torturers will be penalized as principals, as well as their superiors in the military, police or law enforcement establishments who ordered the torture.
The law orders a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Other penalties range from a minimum of six months to a maximum of 12 years of imprisonment depending on the gravity of the offense.
When Aquino took his oath as the county’s 15th president, he projected himself as a defender of human rights. In his first State of the Nation Address, he declared that the three of the six cases of killings which happened under his then month-old administration had already been solved.Now, almost a year after, the number of political killings is pegged at 44. In the meantime, nothing has been done to arrest and charge Oplan Bantay Laya architect and butcher Palparan and other military perpetrators of the thousands of extrajudicial killings under the Arroyo regime. As human rights groups assert, nothing has changed. Aquino carries on Arroyo’s legacy of state terror and violence.