“Incidents must be investigated”
© Richi B. Tongo/picture-alliance/dpa
President Benigno Aquino saluting members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Manila.
Please tell me about your activities as a human-rights campaigner.
I am a member of several human-rights NGOs. Before my arrest, I was doing research on human-rights violations in far-flung areas of Negros Occidental, a province of the Philippines. Typically, human-rights violations affect people in the countryside, where the media hardly take notice. I did fact-finding missions in order to inform government officials, the national Human Rights Commission and the International Committee of the Red Cross. I also did my best to help victims of human-rights violations to bring their cases to court. However, they often lack the money to press charges, and many are too afraid to do so. Fear also results in a lack of witnesses, which makes legal action even more difficult.
What kind of human-rights violations did you discover?
Illegal house raids, and manhandling of people who were accused of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), a rebel organisation. In pain and under pressure, several persons falsely confessed to membership. Other people were forced to pin-point alleged NPA insurgents. Some people fled their homes to escape such reprisals.
Is it possible to build bridges?
Well, I organised dialogues with victims and provincial officials, for example. Some victims would not take part because of the presence of military and other violent perpetrators. Nonetheless, we managed to arrange meetings with victims and members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the regular army. I also participated in organising rallies to educate the public on human rights issues, and I hosted a radio programme called “You and Your Rights”. One of the organisations I belong to, supports political prisoners, visiting them in jail and following up on their cases. We also sought relief for victims of forced evictions and networked with other NGOs.
You were called a terrorist and communist. Such labelling often serves to demonise political activists. How did it affect you?
Well, I knew the labelling was wrong and did my best to ignore it. In one barangay, which is the term for the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, I was declared persona non-grata because of an alleged connection with the NPA. The AFP demanded that all visitors of this specific barangay enter their names in a logbook, and inhabitants were encouraged to inform the AFP, should I enter the area. Pictures of me were posted online, along with the warning: “She is with the NPA”. I did not respect that ban, and the local people knew me. One of them even made a counter-statement online, arguing against military demonisation. Other people spoke out for me too. That helped clear my name at the local level.
Did you fear for your own safety?
Oh yes, I did. There were death threats. We fear for our lives, especially when extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances of activists are on the rise. On the other hand, the life stories I was told gave me the strength to continue. The stories of the victims of human-rights violations must be heard. So I prepared myself mentally for an extrajudicial killing, or enforced disappearance, but I was not prepared for the trumped-up charges I am facing now. Trumped-up charges began to rise when international awareness of extrajudicial killings and disappearances started to grow.
Your arrest was conducted under the so called Jane and John Doe laws. These laws allow prosecutors to file charges against unknown individuals or groups and then subsequently add any number of alleged suspects to the list of accused.
It is a huge legal problem that the authorities in this country do not have to file a charge against you in your name. They file a case and add names later. My particular case was filed in 2010, but my name was only added to the list of accused in 2012. Today, the list of accused amounts to 43 individuals. Some of them are indeed members of militant organisations, but one is a political activist and others are community leaders. I am currently worried about another Jane and John Doe case, in which 20 persons are blamed for murder. Up to now, only 10 names are on the list of the accused, and my name could be added as well. That would mean I would have to stay in detention even after the first case is cleared. They obviously don’t have any evidence against me. Basically, the Jane and John Doe system allows the authorities to lock up people as they please.
You want this system to be abolished.
Yes, it should be abolished completely. Before an arrest, a complete and detailed identity of an accused person needs to be provided. In theory, we, the people, could use the same laws to file cases against AFP members, since they often hide their identity by removing or exchanging their name tags, in spite of being men in uniform and thus required to wear proper identification at all times. For obvious reasons, however, filing cases against unknown AFP members would prove useless.
What can local and international institutions do to improve the situation for human-rights defenders?
The efforts of Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have been very helpful, but we still face huge problems in the Philippines. To change matters, incidents must be investigated, the public must be made aware of the issues and international pressure must continue. At the local level, dialogue is useful in areas where human-rights violations are blatant. Information on violations must be gathered locally. Civil-society organisations are conducting independent field research, but often the AFP gets in their way. The armed forces cooperate with the province officials moreover. Human-rights defenders are in the public eye and all too often become an easy target. The government of the Philippines, however, is under obligation to protect us and our work in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Has international attention made a difference in your case?
Yes, certainly. For example, I am in touch with the International Peace Observers Network (IPON), the EU and a German civil-society network called Aktionsbündnis Menschenrechte Philippinen. Such international attention has made the national Commission for Human Rights and the Department of Justice in Manila take notice of my case. The higher national institutions give instructions to the lower level, how my case should be treated and investigated, which helps to ensure due judicial process is followed. International organisations can also help to draw attention to the issue of trumped-up charges against other human-rights defenders in the Philippines. Personally, I am really grateful for this massive international support. It helps to keep up my morals.
Zara Alvarez is a Filipino human-rights activist who was held in detention from October 2012 to July 2014.
Tiffany Jenkins is a weltwärts volunteer with IPON, the International Peace Observers Network. Weltwärts is a programme run by Engagement Global on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.