What happens if an activist is branded a “terrorist” in the Philippines? | Human Rights News

Baguio, Philippines – Inside his unlit bathroom, Windell Bollinget gently tips a bucket of water over his head, minimizing the sound of the water hitting the tile floor.

The 49-year-old, a prominent activist leader in the mountainous Cordillera region of the northern Philippines, spends most of his days shuttling between several undisclosed evacuation centers.

Bollinger tries to keep a low profile indoors, not going out unless necessary and avoiding making noise that would attract attention.

“I go through a normal routine with extraordinary effort,” he said.

On the rare occasions when he spends time at home with his family, he follows the same procedure.

At night, his wife and four children wake up every time their six dogs bark, whether Bolinget is there or not. They watched surveillance cameras and stepped into the street, worried that armed men might come after him. Neighboring families similarly want the man they’ve called a friend for decades to be branded a “terrorist” by the Philippine government and thrown in prison.

“We need to be able to smell danger, have emergency contacts ready and determine if we’re being followed in public,” he says.

Mr. Bolinguette is the chairman of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), an activist coalition of indigenous groups. He and three other CPA leaders, Jennifer Awingan-Tagaoa, Steve Tauri, and Sarah Abellon-like, were designated as “terrorists” by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) on July 10, 2023.

The ATC, led by administration officials, cited “probable cause” of involvement in “organized violence” and claimed that the CPA and four others were part of a long-running communist armed insurgency in the country.

Indigenous activist Windell Bollinguette lives his life in the shadows after being designated a ‘terrorist’ by the government [Michael Beltran/NDMT]

Under the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) of 2020, authorities can arrest people identified as “terrorists” without a warrant, restrict their travel, freeze their assets, conduct surveillance, and hold them to account. A new court ruling can be issued restricting movement without any restrictions. Some people previously labeled as “terrorists”, communists or enemies of the state were later found dead. There have been approximately 89 extrajudicial killings of activists since June 2022, when Ferdinand Marcos Jr. became president.

According to human rights group Karapatan, 51 people are currently designated as “terrorists.”

The designation is a step beyond the more common red-tagging, which links activists to armed rebellion to justify repression. In the past, all four CPA leaders have been charged in cases related to their alleged involvement with rebel groups. All orders, including the “shoot to kill” order against Bollinget, were rejected by the court.

Critics have described ATL as a return to martial law in the Philippines.

For the past nine months, CPA leaders have lived in relative isolation, away from court hearings challenging ATC decisions.

“We want to prove the facts and question the basis of the designation,” said Baguio City Councilman Jose Morintas, a lawyer for the four “terrorist” suspects.

Karapatan’s Cristina Parabay said the law “institutionalizes the ATC’s mandate to act as judge and jury in carrying out strict enforcement.” It not only threatens and harasses activists, but also puts their lives at risk. ”

living in fear

upon Social mediaThe Bolinguets and Tagaoa families were branded terrorists in 2020.

Photos of their children, some under the age of 18, were passed off as “terrorist” children by trolls and even law enforcement officials. Tagaoa’s daughter Kara, a Manila labor rights activist, was also arrested in 2022 for a robbery that allegedly occurred during a demonstration.

Jennifer Awingan-Tagaoa. She is sitting at the table and has a cup in front of her. She is talking with her green scarf wrapped around her shoulders and her arms in front of her.
Jennifer Awingan Tagaoa spent four months moving from one safe house to another after being designated a ‘terrorist’. [Michael Beltran/NDMT]

Earlier this year, Joel Egko, a spokesman for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, warned protesters: “Surrender now before you file (terrorism) charges!”

In this atmosphere, CPA leaders live in constant fear for the safety of their families. Bollinger said some of his friends and relatives have cut ties with him, fearing that being associated with them could be considered a crime.

“I am an enemy of the state and an indiscriminate target. The state wants to separate me from my family, and it is easier for them,” he said.

Bolinget led one of 37 Supreme Court petitions against ATL in 2020, warning of potential human rights violations.

“All of our concerns were met and we were living proof that being considered a terrorist means you are treated worse than a criminal.”

This designation also affects their health. Bolinget and Tagaoa often experience stomach problems and have to persuade doctors to see them at inconvenient times.

Tagaoa said: “I feel very sick all the time. The doctors said it was due to stress.”

Bollinger blames his poor health on lack of sleep. “Half of your brain is always awake and alert. I’m always nervous and ready to burst into anger,” he said.

Constant alarm

When Tagaoa was arrested in January 2023, she wasn’t worried. She, Bolinget and five others had been charged with sedition for allegedly participating in the armed attack.

“I knew right away that it was fake and I was able to prove it in court,” she told NDMT. The lawsuit was dismissed in May of the same year. But months later, when the decision was published in a national newspaper, she learned she had been designated by her ATC.

Tagaoa spent the next four months going back and forth between safehouses, reminding his family back home to lock all doors and remain vigilant.

Marcos Jr. said in January that he wanted the Philippines to be quickly removed from the Financial Action Task Force’s “gray list” of the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog. .

To that end, Mr. Marcos announced that he would accelerate an “action plan to combat money laundering and terrorist financing and bring violators to book.”

Living without access to personal or business funds was especially difficult for Tagaoa, as she had to sell her small general store.

Cristina Palabay, head of local human rights group Karapatan, is sitting at her desk working on a computer.
Cristina Palabay, head of local human rights group Karapatan, said 51 people were now designated as “terrorists”. [File: Maria Tan/AFP]

Tagaoa’s husband, a university professor, also had his bank account frozen, meaning he could no longer pay his car loan and had to make special arrangements to receive his salary.

Tagaoa believes the designation is a new tactic aimed at neutralizing the enemy after other methods have failed.

“They will harass you and pressure you to side with the government. If you refuse, you will end up being called a terrorist,” Tagaoa said.

Throughout 2022, military officials tried to persuade Tagaoa and his relatives to “cooperate”.

Her teenage nephew said soldiers accosted him when he returned home from school and pressured him to steal Tagaoa’s files and flash drives.

confusion in court

Legal challenges also proved difficult.

The four people filed a direct petition with the Air Traffic Control Agency to have the designation lifted in August 2023, but the request was immediately rejected without a hearing.

“ATC is simply relying on unverified intelligence reports. It simply accepts these as truth and immediately issues a designation, which is a violation of due process,” said Morintas, a legal advisor to the four. he said. While he was speaking on NDMT, posters of him were also put up in the streets, labeling him a “terrorist”.

Justice Department spokesperson and attorney Miko Clavano defended the designation process, saying the ATL recognizes the designation process purely as an “enforcement action” without judicial intervention.

According to Molintas, there’s a danger there.

“A person should be presumed innocent, presumed innocent until he or she appears in court,” he said. “Terrorism charges are different from regular red tags because they take away one of your rights to due process.”

After the appeal was rejected, Mr. Morintas turned his attention to revoking the designations in the ATL and the Regional Trial Court (RTC) by November 2023. Since then, lawyers have accused the government of trying to derail its efforts at every turn.

At three of the RTC hearings, armed men in plain clothes were seen inside the courtroom. They were later determined to be active duty soldiers.

A woman holds a placard during a protest against anti-terrorism legislation.Her sign reads,
Anti-terrorism bill sparked fears it could be used to suppress free speech and target government critics [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) argued that even if the court ruled in their favor, the RTC would still be considered “terrorists” outside the Cordilleras, as it only has jurisdiction “in part of the country.” are doing.

Some lawyers disagree.

“The OSG is wrong,” said Ephraim Cortes of the National Union of People’s Lawyers. He argues that the RTC challenge applies nationwide because it invokes the constitutional power to determine “gross abuses” in government decisions.

The RTC has set a further hearing for April 25th.

Tagaoa, on the other hand, rarely leaves the house unless absolutely necessary. Her community studies and her role as a parent have been severely compromised, and she worries that her children will suffer the same fate.

“I think my life will be like this until the case is solved,” she said, but while the “terrorist tag” took a toll on her family, there were also some unexpected blessings.

“We protected each other, and that made our bond even stronger,” she said.

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