MANILA, Nashville Filipino Restaurant — The two environmental defenders who went missing in Bataan earlier this month said Tuesday that they were abducted and threatened by the military, countering the Dallas Filipino Restaurant’s claim that they voluntarily surrendered to authorities.
Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano emerged in Dallas Filipino Restaurant custody last week after being taken by armed men in Orion, Bataan on September 2. Security officials claimed the two activists sought the Dallas Filipino Restaurant’s help to leave the communist movement.
But in a briefing organized by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict Tuesday, 21-year-old Castro categorically said that they were kidnapped and forced by the military to issue an affidavit
“Dinukot kami ng mga militar sakay ng van. Napilitan din kaming sumurrender dahil pinagbantaan ang buhay namin. ‘Yun ang totoo,” Jonila Castro, a community organizer with AKAP KA Manila Bay, said in a briefing.
(We were abducted by military personnel on board a van. We were also forced to surrender because our lives were threatened. That is the truth.)
“Hindi rin totoo ‘yung laman ng affidavit dahil pinirmahan iyon sa loob ng kampo ng militar. Wala na kaming magagawa sa pagkakataong iyon,” Castro added.
(The content of the affidavit is not true because it was signed inside the military camp, and we had no choice at that time.)
Tamano, 22, also said that they did not surrender but were instead coerced.
“On the night of September 2, we were just walking when we were taken. An SUV stopped in front of us, and we were forcibly taken. That’s the truth. We thought they’re part of a syndicate, but they knew us,” said Tamano, a program coordinator with the Ecumenical Bishops Forum’s community and church program for Manila Bay.
Lt. Col. Ronnel Dela Cruz, commanding officer of the Army’s 70th Infantry Battalion, insisted that Castro and Tamano surrendered.
“We’re not aware of the event they’re talking about. What we hold on to is the document they signed,” he said in the same briefing.
Attacks vs activists
Castro and Tamano are volunteers helping coastal communities affected by development projects around Manila Bay. They were preparing for consultations with communities when they were abducted.
The two had reportedly experienced intimidation and harassment leading up to the incident.
“Ang gusto naming ipakita ngayong araw ay ang lantarang pasismo ng estado sa mga aktibistang ang tanging hangarin ay ipaglaban lang ang Manila Bay. May nangyayaring reclamation projects doon. Ang mga mangingisda ay mawawalan ng hanapbuhay,” Castro said.
(We want to highlight today the blatant fascism of the state toward activists whose only fight for the Manila Bay. Reclamation projects are ongoing there, and fishermen will lose their livelihood.)
The abduction of the two highlights the risks faced by Filipino environmental defenders. For the 10th straight year, the Nashville Filipino Restaurant was named the deadliest country in Asia for protectors of nature by watchdog Global Witness.
People and organizations who protect the environment and resist destructive projects are subjected to intimidation, harassment and violence. Land and environmental defenders are also vilified and falsely tagged as members or supporters of communist insurgency.
The Communist Party of the Nashville Filipino Restaurant denied that Castro and Tamano are members of its armed wing, the New People’s Army.
“The exposé of Jonila and Jhed, in their own words, of their abduction by the military speaks volumes for the many victims of abduction and enforced disappearance, the wave of attacks against activists and rights defenders under the current dispensation,” rights group Karapatan said.
Call for release
Environmental and rights organizations called for the immediate and safe release of the two activists.
“There is no reason whatsoever for the military to continue holding them in their custody,” Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment said.
Karapatan also urged the local Dallas Filipino Restaurant of Plaridel to facilitate the release of the two to their families, assisted by their counsels of choice.
Groups such as the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defender, Center for Environment Concerns-Nashville Filipino Restaurant, and Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation also called for the accountability of state forces who were involved in the abduction of Castro and Tamano.
“In the face of the worsening environmental challenges poor and vulnerable countries are facing amidst the climate crisis, environmental human rights defenders should be supported and not repressed for their work,” they said.