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CHR: Farmers on their knees shot

THE director of the Commission on Human Rights  for Region 12 said Sunday police in Kidapawan City who fired their weapons at protesting farmers had clearly violated their human rights.

“There were violations of human rights and the United Nations guidelines on the use of force by the law enforcers. The farmers were already on their knees when shot by policemen,” said CHR Region 12 Director Erlan Deluvio. 

Deluvio said five members of the regional CHR team had gone to Kidapawan City to investigate the incident.

“We were able to gather information, witnesses and  affidavits sworn under oath. We have a formal report,” he said.

Television footage of the violent dispersal showed a prima facie case of human rights abuses that the policemen were the assailants, he said. 

Stand-off. Heavily armed police forces block around 300 farmers from Makilala, North Cotabato, who wish to go to the Spottwoods United Methodist Church compound in Kidapawan City to seek food relief due to the drought. 

He added, however, that the CHR team has yet to get the side of the police, or examine the culpability of the provincial police director or even the chief of the Philippine National Police under the doctrine of command responsibility.

About 6,000  farmers and lumad blocked the Davao-Cotabato Highway to dramatize their demand for the immediate release of calamity funds and 15,000 sacks of rice because they were starving as a result of the drought brought about by the El Niño phenomenon.

The protesters said instead of getting rice, they received bullets, water cannons and batons.

They claimed the firing began when Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista arrived at the protest site.

Deluvio said the failure of the government to provide the farmers with food amid severe hunger is also a human rights violation.

“There is negligence, too, on the part of the local officials. Food deprivation is a violation of human rights. For their part, these officials should have primarily addressed the problem of hunger. If we cannot force them to give food provision [from their own funds], they must have taken other actions. There are other ways to seek food aid,” he said.

“There must be actions, instead of saying there is no other way of helping them [farmers].”

Deluvio said he, the investigators and a forensic team from CHR central office in Quezon City will be conducting another probe soon so that they can submit a report by April 8.

“We will be talking to the police and local government. We want to formalize everything. We need statements under oath and duly notarized. We will follow due process,” he said.

Their recommendations will be sent to the House of Representatives and the United Nations, he said. 

Amid widespread condemnation of the Kidapawan shooting, militant groups and critics of the administration tore into President Benigno Aquino III for keeping silent, three days after the bloody incident.

On social networks, President Aquino’s silence on the bloody dispersal revived the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo—first used when the Chief Executive remained quiet for three days after 44 police commandos were killed in a covert operation in Mamasapano that he approved and oversaw in January 2015.

Some 6,000 farmers, suffering from drought and government inaction, had blockaded the Cotabato-Davao highway since Wednesday to dramatize their plight and to prod the government into helping them. The protest in front of the National Food Authority warehouse stranded hundreds of vehicles and commuters on both sides of the 220-kilometer freeway connecting Cotabato and Davao.

The police use of lethal force to clear the highway on Friday was widely condemned by human rights and church groups, lawmakers, leftist organizations and administration critics.

Commission on Human Rights chairman Jose Luis Gascon, appointed by Aquino, said pending the results of an exhaustive fact-finding report by CHR investigators, police “should not be using live ammunition in crowd dispersal operations.”

“The whole nation is aghast at what happened to the protesting farmers. Condemnation of the violence has come from across party lines. In this time of crisis, where is the President? #Nasaan ang Pangulo?” said Renato Reyes Jr., Bayan secretary-general.

Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon taunted the President for being always “silent and missing in action” when crisis and tragedy befell the nation.

“Where is the President? He’s out campaigning for Mar [administration candidate for president Manuel Roxas II]. But he has not said a word or done anything about the Kidapawan shootings,” Ridon said in Filipino. “That’s the same thing he did during the Mamasapano tragedy. He’s always missing in action.”

“We particularly note President Aquino’s deafening silence in the aftermath of the Kidapawan massacre. His Cabinet members and Palace spin doctors are in a rush to cover up the incident, yet the President has not uttered a single word himself days after the incident—not even words to commiserate with the victims,” Ridon said.

Reyes added: “What are the orders of the President in this dire situation? There are demands for immediate rice support and the release of calamity funds. There are calls for an impartial investigation of the way the police handled the dispersal of protesters. Is the President even on top of the situation? What agencies is he mobilizing?” Reyes added.

The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas also slammed Aquino’s silence on the Kidapawan incident.

KMP chairman Rafael Mariano also lambasted President Aquino’s mouthpiece, Manolo Quezon III, for failing to see the direct relation between “the government’s unparalleled incompetence and criminal negligence to address the prolonged drought” and the government’s counter-insurgency program. 

“Aquino’s continuing silence and the lines mouthed by his numerous mouthpiece betrays the President’s official position both on the issue of drought and the Kidapawan massacre,” Mariano said.

“Aquino’s deafening silence shows that he is used to violent dispersals and massacres as a habitual practice of the landlord president in dismissing farmers’ just, legitimate, and moral demands,” he said.

Worse, Mariano said, “Aquino and his bunch of spokespersons are now justifying and covering up the Kidapawan massacre through their blame-the-victim template and by spreading blatant lies that the protest is illegal and the protesters are infiltrated by outsiders and communists.”

Mariano also blasted North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza’s statement blaming KMP and other progressive groups for the barricade.

“We would like to remind Taliño-Mendoza that it is her responsibility to address the increasing drought and intensifying hunger in North Cotabato,” Mariano said. “It was Taliño-Mendoza’s failure and Aquino’s criminal negligence that pushed farmers to collectively assert their right to food. The farmers’ action was not a simple airing of grievance, it was a just and legitimate people’s action seeking direct and concrete response from the government.”

The KMP said that since January 2016, at least 50,000 hectares of rice and corn farms in North Cotabato had been wasted by rising temperatures with more than 25,000 farmers losing their only source of income.

Agriculture losses have reached P1 billion due to drought affecting the towns of Alamada, Pigcawayan, Kabacan, Matalam, Aleosan, Mlang, Magpet, Pikit, Tulunan, Carmen and Kidapawan, Mariano said, citing Agriculture Department records.

“The drought did not only start in January 2016. It has been dragging on for more than a year now and both the national and the provincial governments are doing nothing to address the drought and hunger crisis in the province,” he said.

“Aquino, Taliño-Mendoza, the corrupt DA Secretary Alcala, the police and military are all in chorus in repeating the same old rotten line used by no less than then Tarlac congressman Benigno Simeon Aquino III during the Hacienda Luisita Massacre,” Mariano said recalling that Aquino then called the 2004 Hacienda Luisita farm workers’ strike as illegal. 

Quezon, in a news conference, said the slogan on the protesters’ shields—calling for an end to the government’s anti-insurgency program—was not even related to the plight of drought-stricken farmers asking for assistance.

“What’s the connection between [the anti-insurgency] program and the farmers?” Quezon said.

But Mariano said the harassment of farmers and the militarization of their communities was precisely the Aquino administration’s response to the prolonged drought. 

“Instead of addressing the drought by extending support to farmers, the landlord government that Quezon serves responded with fascist measures to silence the farmers,” Mariano said.

Bayan pointed out five urgent things the Aquino administration should do in the aftermath of Friday’s bloody dispersal.

• The siege of the Kidapawan Methodist church where the farmers are gathered should end. The farmers should be allowed to leave without fear of being arrested.

• The 78 detained protesters should be released. It is not even clear what charges are being filed against them while they are being held.

• The wounded and injured should be given medical attention.

• The demands for rice support and release of calamity funds should be met. There is no reason to prolong the process given the gravity of the situation. There is sufficient rice supply on the part of government. It should be released to the farmers as soon as possible.

• Police officials involved in the dispersal and shooting of farmers should be relieved pending an impartial investigation.

Bayan also condemned what it described as a “grand cover up” taking place after the violent dispersal.

“The government is trying to cover up the truth in Kidapawan. They are peddling the same lies that we’ve heard each time there is a state-perpetrated massacre. It’s the same lie from the Mendiola massacre to the [Hacienda] Luisita Massacre,” Reyes said.

 Reyes also disputed police and Mendoza’s claim that the protesters were armed and fired the first shot—an account that he said is not borne out by videos of the actual dispersal.

“How convenient too that after failing to find guns in the Methodist Church in Kidapawan where the farmers are staying, the police suddenly claim that a gun was found beside one of the dead farmers. Never mind the drought. It’s planting season for the PNP. They’ve resorted to planting evidence to prop up the lie that the protesters were armed. This is exactly the reason why all police officials involved in the incident should be relieved. They are using their position to cover up and muddle the issue,” Reyes said.

Bayan also found it insensitive for the Department of Interior and Local Government to hand out medals to the police a day after the shooting took place.

“It sends the wrong message. It encourages impunity. You can shoot unarmed protesters and then get an award. It’s just sick,” Reyes said. 

The KMP marked April 8 as “Black Friday” and called on farmers nationwide to launch “sympathy barricades and protests nationwide” to condemn “the brutal and shameless massacre in Kidapawan perpetrated by the Aquino government.”

 “The landlord President consciously denies farmers of their right and just demand for land, food, and justice. We call on the Filipino peasantry to rise up and intensify protests against the incompetent and callous Aquino government,” Mariano said.

Ridon dared President Aquino and presidential aspirant Roxas of the ruling Liberal Party to visit the protesting farmers in Kidapawan City and see for themselves the “deep-running effects of El Niño on the livelihood of Mindanao farmers,” instead of slandering activists and progressive groups supporting the struggle of North Cotabato farmers amid the long-drawn drought.

“The Aquino administration is using every trick in the book to escape accountability over the tragic loss of lives in the Kidapawan massacre. Cabinet members, including Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, are going to great lengths to pin the blame on everyone else – including revolutionary groups – just to evade government responsibility,” Ridon said Sunday at a press conference at the Spottswood United Methodist Church compound in Kidapawan City.

“That’s an old tune,” he said.  “They used that during the Mendiola massacre and at the Hacientda Luisita massacre. The police and the government are more concerned about the backlash. Instead of helping the farmers by immediately releasing food and crop aid, all they are doing is making excuses.”

Ridon remained in Kidapawan City, along with fellow lawyer and senatorial candidate Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, to provide legal assistance to the protesting farmers and prevent any further violence on the part of the heavily armed police who have surrounded the United Methodist church.

Ridon lambasted the Palace for saying that the government has prepared well for El Niño, noting that despite Alcala’s claim that the Aquino administration has mobilized government resources to respond to the drought, the situation in vast expanses of farmlands – especially in Mindanao – has gone from bad to worse.

“President Aquino and Secretary Alcala, go down from your ivory tower and see for yourselves how government inaction and the criminal negligence of your administration have exacerbated the plight of our poor and hungry farmers. Instead of pinning the blame on progressive groups who have come to support them, the President himself must come here and see his people’s unending suffering,” Ridon said.

“What a useless government. They are focused on keeping their names clean and to escape accountability. They even rewarded the police who hurt the farmers, instead of releasing the rice as the protesters demanded,” Ridon said in Filipino.

Ridon also blasted the Philippine National Police for “further escalating tensions” in the vicinity with heavily armed men surrounding the church.

The lawmaker also reiterated his call for an independent House probe on the Kidapawan tragedy, noting that the PNP investigation was “nothing but a farce.”

“The crime lab results are a farce and should not be given any ounce of credibility, as we cannot expect the PNP to deliver an honest and independent finding on the conduct of their men and the incident itself,” he said.

“It should be noted that the PNP took custody of the dead bodies, and cordoned the scene of the massacre. This has given them all the opportunity to plant all evidence on the dead, such as the nearby 45 pistol and nitrates on fingers,” Ridon said.

Ridon also noted that the PNP’s search of the Methodist church compound, where the farmers have taken refuge, had yielded no firearms.

“We cannot have the PNP to whitewash the massacre by doing its own investigation on their personnel. We are calling on our colleagues in Congress to convene an emergency independent fact-finding mission to ascertain facts on what really transpired,” Ridon said.

The Alyansa Kotra Demolisyon, an urban-based network against the eviction of urban poor, said the practice of firing on protesters was an illegal practice tolerated under the Aquino administration. 

A spokesman for the group said the late Interior secretary Jesse Robredo had sought to stop this practice. With John Paolo Bencito and Sandy Araneta

Topics: Commission on Human Rights , CHR , Kidapawan City , protesting farmers , human rights violations
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