AN INTERNATIONAL human rights group on Monday took the government to task for using lethal force to break up a protest by farmers in Kidapawan City on April 1, resulting in two shooting deaths and dozens of injuries.
“The Philippine government needs to determine why the police found it necessary to fire at protesters,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Some protesters were throwing stones, but lethal force may only be used as a last resort to save lives,” Kine said.
The police used batons and guns against the protesters, including women and children, during the April 1 dispersal.
Darwin Sulang, 22, and a bystander, Enrico Fabligar, 30, were fatally shot, and dozens who were injured required hospitalization for gunshot and other wounds. The police also reported injuries to their officers.
In the aftermath, police have detained 78 protesters and charged 74 of them with offenses including assaulting a police officer.
Three separate investigations into the incident are under way by the official Commission on Human Rights, the Philippine National Police, and the Senate committee on justice and human rights.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to make sure the investigations into the police use of force are credible, transparent and impartial.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police began donning their crowd-control gear at about 9 a.m. on April 1.
Minutes after the crowd was ordered to disperse, a phalanx of police officers and SWAT unit personnel used batons to push through the crowd. When protesters responded by throwing rocks, fire trucks used water cannons against the stone throwers. A video shows protesters advancing toward the police followed by apparently uncoordinated gunfire that continued sporadically.
Since the incident, local and national government officials have alleged that groups linked to the insurgent communist New People’s Army organized the protest. Protesters have denied any such links.
The mayor of Kidapawan City, Joseph Evangelista, told Human Rights Watch that he tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the protest with the assistance of the local Catholic diocese beginning March 30, but said that protest organizers refused to meet. He described the police decision to fire into the crowd as “warning shots” intended to protect two policemen allegedly “about to be killed” by protesters.
The North Cotabato police chief, Alex Tagum, said that police fired on protesters “to defend the people who are helpless and about to be killed,” but provided no details. Police Supt. Jerson Berrey, who supervised the police operation, said police had “reliable reports that there were armed elements that [were] maybe accompanying the [protesters].”
He said that this concern, along with Kidapawan City’s history of being “very prone to terror attacks and bus burnings and kidnappings,” prompted him to order the deployment of a SWAT unit to help deter potential “terror attacks and [situations in which] the police will be made sitting ducks.”
Human Rights Watch said it has been unable to confirm Berrey’s assertion of possible “armed elements” among the protesters.
The non-government Health Alliance for Human Rights reported at a press conference on April 6, that at least 40 protesters sustained injuries, 30 of them gunshot wounds. Human Rights Watch was not able to corroborate those numbers because police and hospital administrators have blocked access by media and human rights researchers to local hospitals where injured protesters are undergoing treatment.
However, Human Rights Watch interviewed six injured protesters who either remained at the scene of the shootings or were held by the police at the city gym. They included two protesters with gunshot wounds to the leg and ankle, and four others with heavily bruised arms, torsos, and faces that they alleged were inflicted by police wielding truncheons and rifle butts.
Neither local government officials nor the Kidapawan City police have released details of the numbers of protesters injured or the type or severity of those injuries. The Philippine National Police in Manila reported on April 3, that nearly 100 policemen were also injured at the protest site on April 1.
They include an officer currently in the intensive care unit of the Kidapawan Doctors Hospital with severe head injuries that police alleged was the result of a beating by protesters. A video from a police aerial drone appears to show a protester repeatedly striking a policeman with a board.
“In Kidapawan, a difficult situation got out of control,” Kine said. “Transparent and impartial investigations are needed to find out what went wrong, who should be held accountable, and what is needed to restore trust in the police.”
Kidapawan City prosecutors on Monday blocked a move by 78 farmers who were arrested to have their bail lowered from P12,000 each to P2,000.
The human rights group Karapatan denounced the move by prosecutors as an example of “picture-perfect oppression.”
“Let us not forget that the peasants were in Kidapawan to seek the release of rice because they are hungry and could no longer plant. How on earth could they post bail amounting to more or less PhP1 million when they could not even afford a kilo of rice? Where’s the justice here?” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary-general.
“The farmers are victims of natural calamity who are victimized many times over by the regime’s neglect and brutality, illegal arrest and detention. Now, they are required to pay P12,000 each for their temporary liberty,” she added.
The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Monday demanded that the “clueless and do-nothing” President Benigno Aquino III take a leave of absence from campaigning for Liberal Party standard bearer Manuel Roxas II and attend to the national calamity brought about by the prolonged El Niño phenomenon.
“Stop campaigning and focus on drought. The El Niño has become a national calamity from Cagayan Valley to North Cotabato,” said Renato Reyes Jr., Bayan secretary-general.
“A clueless and do-nothing President aggravates the already dire situation faced by our farmers,” Reyes said.
Gabriela twitted President Aquino’s “comatose response” to the Kidapawan farmers’ demands for food aid.
“Wake up and release Kidapawan detainees and food aid. Excruciatingly slow government response to urgent demands for food assistance makes you think President Aquino was in a coma,” Gabriela Rep. Emmi de Jesus said.
Instead of trying to whitewash investigations and twist itself out of accountability, De Jesus said the Aquino government should prioritize resolving starvation in drought-affected farms and release all those it arbitrarily arrested and continue to detain, especially the elderly, pregnant and minor persons who were part of the Kidapawan protests last week.
In North Cotabato alone, Reyes said agricultural losses have reached P1 billion.
“Farmers are demanding immediate government intervention,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the President seems more interested in campaigning for his party than attending to the needs of the people,” he added.
“He does not even seem concerned that women and elderly have been arrested after the violent dispersal of protesting farmers in North Cotabato,” Reyes said.
De Jesus said the Solidarity Action Group for Indigenous Peoples and Peasants Network and Karapatan identified three pregnant farmers and six elderly persons who were charged with direct assault on police during the violent dispersal last April 1.
She identified the pregnant women, detained at the Kidapawan Convention Center, as Arlene Candiban, 25, six months pregnant; Eliza Candiban, 22, five months pregnant; and Rolinda Paonil, 34, two months pregnant.
De Jesus named the elderly men, detained at the Kidapawan Gym and elderly women detained at the Kidapawan Convention Center as Dionisio Alagos, 60; Gerardo Pequero, 66; Crisanto Carlum, 72; Jovita Debalid, 68; Lolita Porras, 65; and Valentina Berden, 78.
De Jesus, who was with the National Fact Finding Mission that gathered testimonies in Kidapawan, added there were 74 others detained including 45 men and 29 women.
The Senate committee hearing reported 79 were detained, and that three people were reportedly killed during the dispersal including one bystander.
De Jesus said the detainees were also being denied access to media.
“It is disturbing as it is unjust that senior and pregnant women charged with direct assault were hastily and randomly arrested during the dispersal, despite their obvious incapacity to be engaged in assault. If Aquino is interested in meting out justice, it is clear that his minions should be charging the police, the military and his local party mates instead for serious crimes against the farmers,” De Jesus said.
Reyes said the President should have fired Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala for failing to address the needs of the farmers.
Kidapawan, he warned, may not be the last time farmers will protest.
“More actions loom as the effects of the drought worsen,” Reyes said.
“Stop making excuses, stop deceiving the people. No one is buying your lies. The starving farmers need concrete actions that will truly address the drought, which is wreaking havoc on the agriculture sector and on the lives of peasant families,” said Amihan national chairperson Zen Soriano, in a protest led by the National Federation of Peasant Women in front of the Department of Agriculture national office in Quezon City Monday.
“More than a week has passed but all we have heard were the washing of hands of the officials and agencies involved, victim-blaming, and their utter lies that the government’s drought mitigation program was a success,” Soriano said.
The militant group said that billions of pesos were allotted to address El Niño, including the P19 billion from the Department of Budget and Management and P38.9 billion in calamity funds handed over to the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Fund for 2016 but there have been no specific details on programs and fund allocations.
Soriano said they had their doubts how the budget was spent, particularly during an election year.
“If the government sincerely prepared for El Niño, it should have created more productive and accurate programs than cloud seeding and develop a sustainable agriculture and appropriate technologies and should have appropriated the funds properly; then the bloody tragedy could have been prevented,” Soriano said.
The group assailed the statement of the President on the incident, saying that it was insulting for the farmers to hear the President say that he was not informed after being silent over the incident for a week.
“It is outrageous that the President spoke only of his ill health and his busy schedule while his ‘bosses’ are already dying of hunger due to the government’s continuing criminal negligence. We do not deserve such an incompetent and irresponsible President,” Soriano said.
“Aquino’s statement underscores his accountability for the massacre. His shameless inaction shows tolerance of the hunger and murder suffered by the farmers,” added Soriano.
Administration ally Senator Ralph Recto said the government should cut the red tape that is slowing down the release of calamity aid so that it can bring relief to disaster areas fast. With John Paolo Bencito, Macon Ramos-Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz