Sunday, November 19, 2006

Military undermining rights probe--Fil-Canadian lawyer

By Delfin Mallari Jr.

Posted date: November 19, 2006

LUCENA CITY--A Filipino-Canadian lawyer who has returned to the Philippines to investigate alleged human rights violations in Quezon province said he was extremely disappointed with the hostile reception that her group has received from military and local government officials.

"We're very, very disappointed with the military and local officials in San Narciso town because we were not able to talk with human rights [abuse] victims. No one among local officials granted us [a] permit which was being demanded by the military," lawyer Luningning Alcuitas-Imperial, head of the Phils-Can Task Force on Human Rights, said over the phone from San Narciso.

She added that in every step of the way, going in and going out, the military always trailed them in order to undermine their investigation. The military explained that they did not allow the delegation to go into areas where the government's operations against the communist New People's Army rebels were in full swing.

On Friday, a group of Filipino and Canadian human rights protection advocates went to San Narciso, 268 kilometers south of Manila, to document reports of alleged human rights violations in the area.

The delegation planned to stay until Monday morning but decided to terminate the mission after encountering a hostile reception.

Doris Cuario, Karapatan-Southern Tagalog secretary general and member of the 34-member delegation, said they spotted suspicious persons surrounding the house of a town councilor where they stayed Saturday night.

"The military was hell-bent on preventing us so they kept on harassing us to terrorize the Canadian human rights observers. Even if we wanted to pursue the mission, we decided to end our stay in the area so as not to jeopardize the safety of the foreigners," Cuario said over the phone from the village of Ajos in Catanauan town where the group was held in a military checkpoint in front of the Army's 74th Infantry Battalion headquarters on their way back to Lucena City.

As this correspondent was talking with Cuario, loud protesting voices were heard in the background.

She said a group of protesters at the other side of the street fronting the camp denounced the presence of Karapatan and the Canadian human rights observers.

"They were hauled by the military aboard a big jeep. They carried placards, some with English messages against us, which I'm sure, were written by military propagandists," Cuario said.

According to Col. Amado Bustillos, commanding officer of the 74th IB, the protesters came all the way from San Narciso and hounded the activists' group.

"Most of them were former communist rebels. They just wanted to expose the deception of Karapatan before their Canadian companions," Bustillos said.

He said he was able to talk with a Canadian embassy official over the phone and explained the reasons for preventing the foreigners from pursuing the mission and the necessity of conducting checkpoints along the route.

"Although checkpoints really cause some inconvenience to motorists, it is also for their own safety and also our task in maintaining peace in the area," Bustillos explained.

Cuario said that on their way back to Lucena, Army soldiers manning the checkpoint in Gen. Luna town flagged down their vehicles and again conducted a routine inspection and investigation.

The delegation was again stopped by joint elements of military and police in the next town of Macalelon.

SPO2 Renato Balani, desk officer of Macalelon police station, explained to the Inquirer that they were just doing a "routine inspection" of every foreigner.

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