Environmental activists deny surrendering to authorities, claim military abducted them

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 19) — Environmental activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, who were earlier reported missing, on Tuesday denied that they voluntarily surrendered to the authorities.

Castro claimed that the military was behind their abduction, and they were threatened by authorities.

“Ang totoo po ay dinukot kami ng mga militar sakay ng van. Napilitan din kami sumurender dahil pinagpabantaan yung buhay namin. Ayun ang totoo,” she said during a media briefing by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

[Translation: The truth is the military took us inside a van. We were also forced to surrender because they threatened us. That’s the truth.]

The two activists were reportedly abducted by four armed men on Sept 2. in Orion, Bataan.

"Nung gabi po ng Sept. 2, naglalakad lang po kami sa kalsada nung meron pong dumukot sa amin. May tumigil pong SUV sa harap namin tapos dinukot po kami...Akala namin sindikato, pero kilala po nila kami," Tamano said.

[Translation: On the night of Sept. 2, we were just walking on the street when they abducted us. An SUV stopped in front of us and they took us...We thought they were part of a syndicate, but they know us.]

The NTF-ELCAC said earlier that Tamano and Castro surrendered to the 70th Infantry Battalion in Doña Remedios Trinidad, Bulacan on Sept. 12.

“Hindi rin totoo yung laman ng affidavit dahil ginawa yun, pinirmahan yun sa loob sa kampo ng militar. Wala na kaming magagawa sa mga pagkakataon na ‘yun,” Castro added.

[Translation: The affidavit is also not true because we were in military custody when we signed it. We had no other choice then.]

But the 70th Infantry Battalion insisted the two activists voluntarily surrendered to authorities.

“Sila po ay kusang sumurrender po sa amin noong 12 po,” said commanding officer Col. Ronnel Dela Cruz in the briefing.

[Translation: They voluntarily surrendered to us on the 12th.]

“Dinaan po naman namin sa tamang proseso...Pero klarong klaro po sa atin sa militar po lahat ng proseso from tanggapin namin sila hanggang ngayon po na punto na to,” he added.

[Translation: We followed the right procedures...It’s very clear on the military’s side that we followed the right procedures – from receiving them up until this point.]

Tamano and Castro are also community organizers working with fishermen opposing reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

Meanwhile, the NTF-ELCAC officials said that they felt "betrayed" by Tamano's and Castro's statements, insisting that the two just "parroted the propaganda lines of Leftist groups on their supposed abduction by security forces."

The anti-communist task force said that it stands by the position of the 70th Infantry Battalion and the official report of the Philippine National Police.

"Whatever caused their sudden change of heart is beyond us. Earlier engagements by Task Force officials with the two students regarding the veracity and truthfulness of their affidavits were convincing enough to merit their public appearance," said NTF-ELCAC in a statement. "We were hoodwinked."

But the task force said that it will "remain steadfast in ensuring the safety of the two and committed to upholding their rights as individuals under any circumstances."

DOJ open to probe abduction claim

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said his agency is open to investigating the alleged kidnapping of the activists by state troops, as he also took a swipe at the leftist movement.

“We will find out who's telling the truth," Remulla said in a press briefing. "The government has nothing to gain by violating the law, I think that is very clear to all of us.”

“This kind of blame-throwing that the left is doing, they've been doing this to the government forever,” he added.

The DOJ official further stated that the two environmental activists could have been subjected to “peer pressure” by political groups into claiming that they were abducted.

Safe release

Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas said kidnapping and illegal detention charges must be filed against the 70th Infantry Battalion and the NTF-ELCAC.

"We are even more compelled to raise pointed questions during the plenary debates on the budget of the Department of National Defense," she said in a statement. "We also reiterate our call to abolish NTF-ELCAC for brazenly enabling state terrorism using public funds."

Meanwhile, progressive groups called for the safe and immediate release of Tamano and Castro, who are currently in government's custody.

"We hold accountable the government authorities responsible for the abduction and now the possible illegal detention, coercion, and psychological torture of Jonila and Jhed," said Karapatan. "The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have no reason to hold Jhed and Jonila in their custody."

"In view of the public and categorical repudiation by activists Jhonila Castro and Jhed Tamano of the government narrative in the presence of NTF-ELCAC, the military, the LGU, officials and the media, there is no legal basis to hold them any second longer and they should be freed and if restrained illegally, can walk away from their custodians," said National Union of Peoples' Lawyers chairperson Edre Olalia in a statement.