Human rights advocates and people's organizations have recently condemned the alleged massacre of Benjaline "Beng" Hernandez, 22, deputy secretary general of Karapatan-Southern Mindanao, along with three others last April 5 in Sitio Bukatol, Brgy. Kinawayan, Arakan Valley. According to Karapatan, an alliance of human rights organizations, Hernandez was in the area conducting a month-long research on the peasant situation and doing follow-up work on a fact-finding mission that she spearheaded on the Tababa Massacre in Arakan Valley last year.
According to eyewitnesses, Hernandez and her companions - Crisanto Amora, 23, Vivian Andrade, 18, and Labaon Sinunday, 30 - were in a hut about to eat lunch when six members of the Civilian Auxiliary Forces Geographical Units (Cafgus) led by the 7th Battalion (Airborne) Staff Sergeant, Antonio Torrella, began strafing.
Sinunday, a Lumad, ran away, but was shot and fatally wounded a few meters from the hut. Hernandez and two others jumped from the house but were hurdled together by Torella and the militiamen and thrown to ground facing their executioners. An eyewitness also said that one of the victims begged the men to stop, saying, "Tama na. Magpadoktor na kami!" (That's enough. We need a doctor!)
The bodies were found lying on the ground, with their hands raised as if in a gesture of begging for their lives or protecting themselves. The body of Hernandez was found with her face shattered. Her neck, upper right chest and left palm were riddled with bullets. Bruises were found on her face, hands and body. Her chest was also burnt, an indication she was shot at close range. Amora was hit in the stomach and head and his innards were exposed. Andrade's head was blown off.
Residents heard the Cafgu men boast of their actions after the killing. One told the residents, "Hurot na sila. Tua na sila sa lain kalibutan. Peaceful na. Adtoa ninyo." (They are all extinguished. They have all gone to another world. It's all peaceful now. Go and get them.) Another boasted, "Perting hilak ang mga babaye!" (The girls were weeping loudly!)
AFP officials have stated that the four were killed in a military encounter and that Hernandez was not a human rights worker, but a member of the New People's Army (NPA). But Karapatan officials dispute this.
"If this was a legitimate encounter as what the military claims it to be, it was a clear violation of the international humanitarian law," said Dani Beltran, deputy secretary general of Karapatan in a statement released to the media. "But it was no encounter," Beltran insisted. "It was a massacre."
Hernandez was an AB Literature student-on-leave at the Ateneo de Davao University and was also the campus paper's features editor and incumbent vice president for Mindanao of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines.
Karapatan warns that the massacre in Arakan Valley is not an isolated incident. "Beng is the latest victim of a calibrated attack against genuine human rights advocates and activists of the legal and democratic mass movement," said Beltran.
Two days after the massacre, on April 8, Expidito Albarillo, a Bayan Muna municipal coordinator and his wife, Manuela Albarillo, were arbitrarily executed in Mindoro Oriental. Eyewitness accounts have implicated elements of the Philippine Army's 16th Infantry Battalion.
Bayan Muna, a progressive party-list political party with three representatives in the Philippine Congress, claims they are victims of what they call, "systematic political repression."
Bayan Muna president and Representative Satur C. Ocampo said that there is enough basis to say that Bayan Muna is being targeted for repression by the government, probably "for its staunch opposition against the Balikatan 02-1 exercises, and other anti-people programs and policies of the administration." Ocampo said that so far, 10 Bayan Muna coordinators have been victims of extra-judicial killings, and seven are still missing. From March 2001 to March 2002, there have been 44 reported cases of harassment of Bayan Muna sympathizers and members, ranging from illegal arrest and questioning by the police and the military to one incident of house strafing that could have resulted in more deaths.
"As a political party with established roots in the mass movement of the basic sectors, Bayan Muna has been very vocal in criticizing the Arroyo administration's militarist policies and anti-people programs," explained Ocampo.
"The series of kidnappings and killings perpetrated against our members cannot be mistaken for anything but attacks against Bayan Muna itself. This is outright political repression, and we demand that the national government urgently address this issue," he added.
Escalating Political Repression
According to Karapatan, two members of people's organizations are victims of human rights violations every week. "This is amid the escalating political repression of the Macapagal-Arroyo regime," said Beltran.
Despite the numerous documented cases of human rights violations, President Arroyo praised last month, in front of the graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), "the great Filipino soldier" who made "the supreme sacrifice" of keeping civilians "from harm's way" in Basilan, Mindanao and elsewhere in the country. With equal vigor, she derided the human rights advocates who "sweepingly accuse" the AFP of human rights violations, while at least 200 government troops have been killed or wounded in action since January.
In response, Karapatan officials pointed to the number of documented cases of human rights violations. "Despite the President's rabid remarks in defense of the military, she fails to convince the public," said Marie Hilao-Enriquez, Karapatan's secretary general said in a statement. "The reality of human rights violations, after all, is not a matter of the President's opinion, it is a matter of verifiable fact. Countless accounts, corroborated by international courts and humanitarian organizations, have for years shown to the public the portrait of the AFP as a human rights violator during the dark era of martial law and to this day. Thousands of victims of military brutality are haunted by memories of repression," Enriquez said.
There are 9,639 victims of human rights violations under Marcos seeking indemnification until today. Ninety-nine percent of the 102 cases have been dismissed by the court due to technicalities.
Karapatan, Bayan Muna, Selda, an organization of former political prisoners, and other progressive people's organizations vow to continue to seek justice for Beng Hernandez and all victims of human rights violations. "Beng's death must fuel the flame for greater perseverance in the struggle against the anti-people and militarist Arroyo regime that persecutes the real workers for peace and servants of the people," concluded Beltran.
As a student journalist, we lost a
conscientious bearer of the pen.
As a young human rights advocate, we lost a responsible and devoted co-worker.
We salute her martyrdom and pay tribute to her great contribution to the people's struggle for justice, human rights and lasting peace.
Yes, we will surely miss her. But, her death must fuel the flame for greater perseverance in the struggle against the anti-people and militarist Macapagal-Arroyo regime that persecutes the real workers for peace and servants of the people.
For justice and peace,
The mission aims to investigate and expose the extent of the US armed involvement in the Philippines and the responsibility of the Arroyo administration; assess the socio-economic, political and cultural impact of the US armed intervention; and move peace loving peoples in the world to stop military aggression and promote international solidarity and cooperation in the quest for global peace free from wars, aggression and intervention.
The main feature of the activity will be a three-day fact finding mission in Basilan and Central Luzon where the Balikatan 02-1 and 02-2 military exercises are ongoing and a people's caravan in Mindanao.
Particpants from the US, Canada, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Philippines are expected to join the activity.