Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Arrested Human Rights Lawyer Yet To Have His Day in Court

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines (Philippine Human Rights Reporting project / Dec. 23, 2008) – Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have filed a resolution to investigate the arrest and continuing detention of human rights and labor lawyer Remigio Saladero Jr.

And in another related development, the Asian Network of Indigenous Lawyers (ANIL) is bringing the case to the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on human rights’ defenders while urging the Philippine government to order the release of the 49-year-old lawyer who was arrested in Oriental Mindoro over what his supporters claim are trumped-up charges.

Human Rights Watch has already claimed the arrest to be ‘politically motivated.’ Elaine Pearson, its Asia Division deputy director has said the arrest ‘smacks of harassment pure and simple.” The Commission on Human Rights has also reportedly recently started its own investigation into the case.

Interviewed this week by the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, Bayan Muna Representative Satur Ocampo said that Philippine lawmakers have filed House Resolution No. 887 which directs the House Committee on Human Rights to conduct an inquiry into the arrest and detention of Saladero.

“It was already referred to the Committee on Human Rights but no hearing is yet set,” Ocampo added, when interviewed via phone on December 16 while attending the Congress Bicameral meeting for the 2009 budget.

Saladero Jr. was arrested on October 23 inside his office in Antipolo City by combined elements of the Antipolo police and military intelligence group 4A of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP), stated Resolution No. 887 which was filed on November 27 with Representatives Teodoro Casino, Liza Maza, Luzviminda Ilagan, and Rafael Mariano.

Saladero who is reportedly being held in Calapan City jail in Oriental Mindoro in southern Luzon, counts many trade union and human rights activists among his clients as well as those charged with being suspected members of the New People’s Army.

“The trumped-up charges against Saladero appear to be an attempt to intimidate other lawyers of the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE) for handling around 700 labor, human rights, civil and administrative cases, including controversial labor cases of Hacienda Luisita and Nestle Philippines,” claims Ocampo.

Hacienda Luisita is the 5,000-hectare hacienda in Tarlac in central Luzon owned and controlled by the family of former president Corazon Aquino. Nestle Philippines meanwhile used to be co-owned by San Miguel Corporation, the country’s largest food and beverage company led by Aquino’s first cousin, businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.

Genesis of the charges

Multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder charges were filed against Saladero and 71 co-accused based on claims that Saladero and others were involved in an NPA ambush against military forces in 2006 in Oriental Mindoro.

Judge Tomas Leynes of the Regional Trial Court Branch 40 of Calapan issued a warrant of arrest for Saladero on October 8.

Saladero’s lawyer Noel Neri claimed they have already filed motions to quash the warrant and dismiss the case. A hearing was originally scheduled on December 11 but was reportedly postponed to allow more time to prepare the case against him and his co defendants.

According to the Free Attorney Saladero Coalition, there has not been any preliminary investigation. The coalition was formed on November 13 and composed of lawyers, trade unions and human rights groups.

According to court documents, a military agent pointed to Saladero and other activists as among those involved in the 2006 ambush in Oriental Mindoro.

ANIL maintains the Philippine government is contradicting its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) by harassing human rights defenders through “trumped-up” cases filed in court with the sole aim to “silence them from raising human rights issues”.

Composed of human rights lawyers across the region, ANIL has urged the government to “immediately release labor lawyer and newspaper columnist Saladero.”

At least twenty-five lawyers from various countries gathered here for a network conference sponsored by Tebteba Foundation, an indigenous peoples international center for policy research and education.

Babloo Loitongbam, a lawyer based in India, said the background, nature of the charges and the arrest of Saladero are all considered as an attack on human rights defenders as Saladero is working with the realization of human rights.

“We intend to bring the case (of Saladero) to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders for appropriate action,” said Loitongbam, also the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an NGO rendering legal services to the poor in India.

Worst attack against defender

In a separate interview with the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, lawyer Jose Mencio Molintas, an appointed member of the indigenous rights experts group to the United Nations Human Rights Council, condemned the charges against Saladero.

“That is the worst form of attack against human rights defenders, filing trump up cases to silence him on his human rights work and advocacy,” said Molintas who is also national vice-president for Luzon of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).

A member of the Ibaloi tribe and a veteran human rights lawyer, Molintas added that Saladero is dedicated to human rights advocacy rendering free legal services to the “poor and oppressed.”

GMA record compared with Marcos

Lawyer Cheryll Datec-Yangot meantime criticized the President for what she claimed was “poor leadership” in regard to the promotion and protection of rights in the Philippines.

“It is a manifestation of the gravity of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s disregard on basic rights,” added Daytec-Yangot, a human rights practicing lawyer in the Cordillera.

“If they can concoct a case against a lawyer and violate his human rights, they can do that to anyone just to stifle dissent on a regime whose record is unprecedented,” Daytec-Yangot said, adding: “(Ferdinand) Marcos’ human rights record pales in comparison with that of Arroyo.”

Attack against press freedom

The lawyer’s arrest has also been roundly condemned by media activists given he also works as a columnist and writes Husgahan Natin (Let Us Judge) on the Pinoy Weekly, a web-based news outfit.

“Saladero was arrested not because he was being suspected as an NPA but because he criticized the government’s inability to address the issues of the labor sector,” claimed Desiree Caluza, secretary-general of the Baguio-Benguet chapter of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

She added that the government should stop thinking that the arrest of Saladero will stop those who would write and express the issues of the marginalized sectors.

“The will to express and write about the marginalized sectors cannot be curtailed as long as exploitation and oppression continues,” added Caluza who also writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Just doing their job

For their part, the police in Oriental Mindoro claimed that they do not have any grudge against Saladero.

“We were just executing a warrant of arrest issued by a judge in one of the courts,” explained Superintendent Ricardo Padilla, CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) police chief.

He added that the police themselves would be in violation of the law if they did not implement a court order.

But Saladero was first reported missing by his next of kin before the police admitted they had arrested him. Saladero’s wife Maricel has repeatedly denied her husband is a member of the NPA and says she fears for her husband’s health behind bars. (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project - Arthur L. Allad-iw. The author is a journalist based in Baguio City and a member of the Kankanaey tribe in the Mountain Province. He writes in a local paper and hosts a television program in a local cable station. He is also an active member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.)

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