Human Rights Leader Killed in Philippines’ ‘War Against Dissent’

39-year-old Zara Alvarez, a human rights activist in the Philippines, was shot dead on the evening of August 17th. Alvarez was a member of Karapatan, an alliance of human rights advocates in the Philippines, as well as a member of the Negros Island Health Integrated Program. Alvarez was heading to her home in Bacolod City after picking up food for dinner when unidentified gunmen shot her nearly six times. The Karpatan has lost 12 other members to extrajudicial killings since Duterte took power in 2016.
On the same day Alvarez was gunned down, Karapatan was burying their comrade Randall ‘Ka Randy’ Echanis, a land rights activist who took part in peace negotiations with President Rodrigo Duterte as part of the National Democratic Front (NDF). Though he was aged 72 upon death, Echanis was not lost to old age – he was brutally murdered. In fact, Leah Armamento of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) stated Friday in an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel “the killing [of Echanis] is not merely just to kill him but to make him suffer,” when asked if his autopsy suggested torture. Echanis was found by a neighbor in Quezon City.

While both Alvarez and Echanis were known human rights activists and organizers, they had something else in common. Both were listed on the initial petition from Philippines’ Department of Justice to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines a terrorist organization, a list which was later revised to remove over 600 names. Echanis and Alvarez were killed by unidentified assailants, and both cases currently remain open.

In a statement put out by the Karapatan on Facebook, they describe being “in deep grief and indignation.” They point out the inclusion of both Ka Randy and Zara Alvarez on the list of terrorists and the continued threats against them by state forces. They close the post by stating:

“We will honor Zara’s legacy as a passionate, selfless and dedicated human rights worker, by continuing the struggle for the realization of people’s rights. Justice for Zara Alvarez! Justice for all victims of extrajudicial killings!”

The deaths of Zara Alvarez and Ka Randy are characteristic of the current climate for activists and human rights workers in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. In January of 2019, another NDF member who was also featured on the initial list of names the Department of Justice aimed to vilify as terrorists was also shot dead. 49-year-old Randy Felix Malayao was killed by unidentified shooters while asleep on a bus in Nueva Vizcaya. In June of 2019, High School Senior and Karapatan member Ryan Hubilla and fellow Karapatan member Nelly Bagasala were shot dead by unidentified shooters aboard a motorcycle only a single kilometer away from the City Police Office.

In all of these murders, the police and state forces have done little to nothing to bring the assailants to justice, a trend that has continued in the most recent killings. For Cristina Palabay, the national leader of Karapatan, the blame is on the government. Palabay, in a statement to Al Jazeera, points out the current lockdown of the Philippines as a crucial piece of evidence against the government. With the current lockdown comes curfews and checkpoints throughout cities. This includes a constant guarding of checkpoints by state forces.

“And yet, the killers were able to get through these cordons of state forces […]” says Palabay, noting “it is not really far from our mind that those who killed them are from the state forces.” Palabay also emphasized the inclusion of Alvarez on the suspected terrorist list.

While both cases remain open and Philippine authorities investigate the killings, the track record of investigations into the killing of activists in the Philippines is not a good one. Sadly, the current air in the Philippines is reminiscent of the culture surrounding the Red Scare of the Cold War era in the United States. Fear of communism is fueling a manhunt by state forces to seek out dissenters and brand them as enemies of the state. In this tidal wave of violence, many innocent lives are being washed away, especially those of civilian activists. Whether the direct acts of violence and killings are being perpetrated by the hands of state actors is still unknown; however, the responsibility to protect citizens falls on the state – a responsibility the Duterte administration has fallen short on. The labeling of these civilians as terrorists by the government even after it was rescinded has led to the targeting of them for violent attacks. In that manner, the actions of the government have indirectly led to civilian deaths and will continue to until the state changes the way it handles dissent and activism.

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