ESCALANTE CITY, Negros Occidental – Chairperson of the Danao River Fishermen Association (DARIFA) in Escalante City, an affiliate of the national fisherfolk alliance PAMALAKAYA, is the latest victim of the violent crackdown on leaders and members of peasant organizations in Negros Island.
The Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (NNAHRA) received reports that DARIFA chairperson Francisco Laza, 54, of Hacienda Gaylan, Sityo Lawis, Brgy. Langub, Escalante City was brought to the Escalante police station Friday afternoon, April 5, along with another resident, Bienvenido Hepitulan, 55.
Hepitulan was detained overnight and released the next day, April 6, but Laza continues to languish in jail until now as he was slapped with trumped-up charges of resisting arrest, illegal possession of firearms and explosives and violation of the COMELEC gun ban.
A .38 caliber firearm and a grenade were planted in Laza’s possession by the soldiers and police who barged into their homes earlier that day.
Around 9:00 am on April 5, some 100 armed men belonging to the 79th Infantry Battalion based in Barangay Bato, Sagay City, barged into the homes of Gaylan, Hepitulan and five other residents in Hacienda Gaylan. The soldiers were accompanied by elements of the PNP 6 Special Action Battalion (SAF) and the Negros Occidental Provincial Mobile Force (RMF). Most of the residents were out in the fields working when authorities barged into the community.
Laza, Hepitulan and his wife Elsa, and another resident, Mercedita Mahusay, witnessed the ransacking of homes by soldiers and police and promptly questioned authorities regarding the legality of their operation.
Instead of presenting documents or explaining their presence, a member of the 79th IB repeatedly harassed the Hepitulan couple regarding weapons supposedly hidden in their homes. The victims, however, are ordinary peasants and did not own any firearms. The soldiers also threatened to kill their family members should they expose the incident.
In the home of Mahusay, another member of the 79th IB forcibly took personal and organizational documents such as their group’s petitions for land reform as they stormed the household. The soldiers warned Mahusay and other members of their group not to join the activities of the association, including meetings and rallies. Should they continue to do so, the soldiers threatened them that they will be pulled out of the crowd during the activity and will be “advised to go home.”
The victims also complained that state forces destroyed and threw away stacks of eggs belonging to residents; took their stock of dried fish (bulad) and their farm chickens without their permission, and cooked and consumed these during the said operation.
Francisco Laza and Bienvenido Hepitulan were then arrested and brought to the Escalante City Police Station at around 2:30 in the afternoon.
NNAHRA condemned the incident and said that nothing could justify the atrocities in Negros. The soldiers and police who ransacked the homes were clearly without any authority to conduct such search operations that violated the privacy and basic rights of the residents.
NNAHRA added that state forces apparently presented an “alternative version” of the incident to cover-up their abuses.
According to the police blotter signed by PLtCol Necerato G. Sabando, Jr., officer-in-charge of the Escalante City police, Laza supposedly surrendered to authorities around 3:25 in the afternoon after he sped off in a motorcycle to avoid a Comelec checkpoint conducted by the PNP-Escalante, 6SAB and NOCPMFC, and 79th IB at Sitio Tamao, Brgy. Langub.
Authorities supposedly set up the checkpoint after receiving reports from their “intelligence operatives” that CPP-NPA-NDF elements were seen operating in the area.
After a supposed body search, Laza was allegedly found to be carrying a .38 caliber revolver with 5 live ammunitions, a hand grenade, and a pink bag containing “various subversive documents” including a poster of Anakpawis Partylist and 3 NPA streamers — purportedly with an NPA command and DARIFA as co-signatories in greeting the NPA on its 50th anniversary.
Laza denied that the wild chase at the checkpoint even happened and refused to sign the inventory papers of supposed illegal materials seized from him. NNAHRA also decried the malicious and cheap stunt to “redtag” legitimate groups like DARIFA and Anakpawis Partylist by mixing electoral posters and supposed rebel streamers in the inventory of “subversive documents” seized from Laza.
NNAHRA added that similar incidents involving the 79th IB also happened days earlier in the isolated village of Winaswasan in Calatrava town. The manner of the operations in Calatrava and Escalante were similar to the Oplan Sauron operations in Negros Oriental which has now killed a total of 20 farmers and arrested around 70 persons for supposed possession of “loose firearms.”
Around 2:00 in the morning on April 2, 2019, five households in Sityo Dugma, Brgy. Winaswasan, Calatrava were forcibly entered and searched by 79th IB soldiers. The home of Reneboy Dañoso was first to be searched. Witnesses said that two of the armed men who entered their homes covered their faces with bonnets, and introduced themselves as “scout rangers,” an elite military unit. Around 4:00 am that same day, the home of Bernie Melga was also ransacked.
NNAHRA said that the sacrifices of so many ordinary citizens, activists and human rights defenders who risked their lives to lift Martial Law and oust the Marcos dictatorship must not go to waste by allowing such incidents to happen again and again under Duterte.
“The martyrs of the 1985 Escalante massacre sacrificed their lives to expose the evils of tyranny and dictatorship. They died protesting. We are now challenged to resist de facto Martial Law, speak out and seek justice for our present-day martyrs — the peasant leaders and rights advocates like Atty. Ben Ramos who fell victim to political killings, the nine farmworkers killed in Sagay, and the victims of Oplan Sauron 1 and 2 in Guihulngan, Canlaon and other areas of Negros Oriental.”
“We demand the pull-out of military troops in peasant communities of Negros. Drop the fabricated charges and free Francisco Laza now! Memorandum Order No. 32 and Oplan Sauron must be junked. The perpetrators of these atrocities against our peasants in Negros must be brought to justice,” said Alburo.