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NTF-Elcac ‘shot itself in the foot’ in its own presser on 2 missing envi activists

The 19 September press conference of the NTF-Elcac (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) seemingly backfired after two previously missing environmental activists were presented to the public as ‘surrenderees’ only to reveal that they had been abducted and tortured by the military. The statements of environmental activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano at the press conference caught the NTF-Elcac off guard who immediately deleted the live feed from their Facebook account.

Sitting beside the commanding officer of the 70th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA), Castro said that they were kidnapped by soldiers, and that they were made to sign affidavits under duress inside a military camp. Tamano confirmed Castro’s revelation, saying that they did not voluntarily surrender to the authorities but were threatened to do so.

In response, the NTF-ELCAC said they “felt betrayed and hoodwinked.” The agency said that it stands with the position of the 70th IBPA, and went as far as claiming that the two “parroted the propaganda lines of the Leftist groups on the supposed abduction by security forces.”

The bravery of the two environmental defenders in the face of outright repression “is clearly worthy of praise and emulation,” according to Marco Valbuena, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) Chief Information Officer.

Castro took the opportunity to bring to the fore the impacts of Manila Bay rehabilitation on fisherfolk communities and how state forces wield violence to intimidate those who fight back.

As Tamano rightly pointed out, they are not the only ones who were forcibly disappeared. Under the Marcos Jr. administration, human rights group Karapatan documented eight other victims of enforced disappearances since July 2022.

“Jhed and Jonila’s defiance in the face of direct military intimidation is a major blow to the Marcos-Duterte admin and its fascist minions in the NTF-Elcac and AFP,” the National Democratic Front of the Philippines said in a statement. According to the NDFP, the incident further exposed the NTF-ELCAC’s role in propagating lies to justify human rights violations such as abduction, arrests, trumped-up charges and even extrajudicial killings. In a 2021 study, Karapatan said that at least 427 activists were red-tagged before they were killed.

On 28 September, a petition for a “writ of amparo” and “habeas data” were filed at the Supreme Court by lawyers of Castro and Tamano seeking temporary protection for the two activists and their families in the face of threats against their lives.

The writ of amparo is a protection provided by the Supreme Court to individuals or groups whose lives, liberty and safety are threatened by state agents.  The writ of habeas data obliges state agencies to reveal and destroy all documents or information that the military and police have gathered against said individuals and groups.

In a related development, the Office of the Ombudsman has found former NTF-Elcac spokespersons retired Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. and former undersecretary Lorraine Badoy guilty of “committing conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service for red-tagging activists and organizations.”

In a decision signed by Ombudsman Samuel Martires last 9 August, Parlade and Badoy were reprimanded after the Ombudsman found merit in the complaint of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).