Two detained environmental activists have accused the Philippine military of kidnapping them, sparking demands from human rights groups for their release. The two activists’ confessions were made when they attended a government press conference on Tuesday (19/9).
Jonila Castro, 21, and Jhed Tamano, 22, had been working with coastal communities opposing reclamation activities in Manila Bay when they disappeared on September 2 in Bataan Province, near the capital Manila.
The Philippines is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land and environmental defenders, with 11 people killed in 2022, according to monitoring organization Global Witness.
Human rights groups launched an investigation days after Castro and Tamano’s disappearance. They accused the women of being violently abducted, possibly by “state actors”, apparently linked to their activism.
People enjoy the sunset inside what used to be America’s largest overseas naval base at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines on Feb. 6, 2023.
On September 15, nearly two weeks after the two were declared missing, the National Security Council (NSC) and police announced at a press conference that Castro and Tamano were being held in a safe house after they requested help from the authorities.
They denied that the women were activists and said that accusations by “left-wing organizations” that they had been kidnapped were “fake news” and “elaborate lies”.
“They are described as environmental activists. They are not environmental activists but left-wing organizers. They left the movement of their own accord,” NSC spokesman Jonathan Malaya told reporters at the time.
But on Tuesday, Castro and Tamano presented different versions of events at a press conference organized by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, created by former president Rodrigo Duterte.
Threatened to be Killed
The task force frequently accused government critics of being communist sympathizers, without providing any evidence.
This practice, known as “red-tagging,” can result in the arrest, detention or even death of the targeted person. This continued under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who replaced Duterte in 2022.
Castro and Tamano apparently deliberately did not read a script prepared in advance by authorities during a press conference at Plaridel City Hall in Bulacan province. “We were actually kidnapped by the military in a van,” Castro said. “We were forced to surrender because they threatened to kill us. That’s the reality. We don’t want to be in military custody.”
Castro said the statement they signed was “not true.” “We had no choice then. Today we want to show how fascistic this country is towards activists who only want to fight for Manila Bay,” he said.
Footage of the press conference was widely shared on X, formerly known as Twitter. Links to the video were later removed from the Facebook pages of the Plaridel municipal government and the task force.
Karapatan, an alliance of local human rights groups, said the women’s statements showed official claims that they had surrendered to authorities were “all lies and nonsense”. “We demand the safe release of Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro now, and not any later,” said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay.
Military spokesman Medel Aguilar declined to comment other than to say: “We will wait for reports from our field units there.”
A spokesperson for NSC Malaya did not immediately respond to AFP news agency’s request for comment. (ab/ka)