Brian Campbell, International Labor Rights Forum
On October 23, 2008, while the ILRF was in the middle of proceedings at the United States Trade Representative concerning the Philippine military campaign against the members of the Kilusang Mayo Uno-affiliated union at Dole Foods’ plantation in Mindanao, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) arrested one of the attorneys for the union representing Dole’s workers, Remigio Saladero. Atty. Saladero now sits in jail in Mindoro, a province far from his home and his work, as yet another victim of the Philippine government (GRP) expanding government offensive to dismantle progressive trade unions, political parties, and NGOs. As its weapon, the GRP is using politically motivated prosecutions and abusing the justice system to silence its critics.
Atty. Saladero is not alone. In the past few weeks, the GRP has charged 71 other people along with him, a virtual who’s who list of labor and political activists from trade unions, progressive political parties, and human rights groups in CALABARZON, with myriad charges stemming from the same two incidents, the burning of a cell phone tower allegedly by the New People’s Army (NPA) and an attack by the NPA on government troops in a different province in March 2006. Apparently, the GRP is alleging that each of the 72 people named in the arrest warrants were responsible for the NPA’s attacks, presumably because, the GRP argues, each are members of progressive organizations that are allegedly “front” organizations for the New People’s Army. In short, the GRP is alleging that members of these progressive organizations, like the KMU and its 300,000 strong membership, are all terrorists.
Because Atty. Saladero represents many progressive labor unions and NGOs as an attorney for the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE), a non-profit dedicated to representing workers and independent unions across the Philippines, and also as legal counsel for the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and the Anakpawis political party, he is at the center of the GRP’s concerted efforts to bring down these progressive organizations. Atty. Saladero and his colleagues’ at PLACE are representing unions involved in some of the most high profile labor cases currently pending in the Philippines, including representing workers at Hacienda Luisita, Nestle, Chong Won, Dole Foods, and Solidarity of Cavite Workers. Each of these unions has had leaders assassinated or have been subject to government sponsored harassments, either by the military or private security forces, during the course of organizing campaigns and collective bargaining negotiations.
Apparently, Atty. Saladero’s legal work on behalf of progressive organizations has been noticed by the GRP. Human rights groups have question the political motives behind his arrest. As Human Rights Watch noted, “Suddenly arresting a well-established activist lawyer for a two-year-old multiple murder case in another province should set off alarm bells. This smacks of harassment, pure and simple.”
Abusive prosecutions are not new in the Philippines. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, has criticized the GRP’s Inter-agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), an executive branch body that includes the Department of Justice and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, for using abusive prosecutions as a weapon to dismantle the purported front organizations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the GRP for subverting the criminal justice system in order to harass civil society organizations.
The Supreme Court of the Philippines has openly questioned the partisan political motives of Secretary of Justice Raul Gonzales and the federal prosecutors in the arrest of Anakpawis’s former Congressional representative and veteran of the Philippine labor movement, Crispin Beltran, on charges of rebellion in 2006. The court chastised the Secretary of Justice and the federal prosecutors for the “obvious involvement of political considerations in the actuations of respondent Secretary of Justice and respondent prosecutors.” The Court also felt the need to send a stern warning to the GRP and its prosecutors that:
This is the second time the Supreme Court has had to warn the GRP to stop abusive prosecutions aimed at progressive trade union leaders and other progressive organizations in the past two years. In 2006, after the Philippine government declared a state of emergency alleging that there was a coup plot against Pres. Arroyo, progressive organizations and their supporters protested in the streets against the sweeping martial law declaration. Many were arrested for violating the martial law declaration. The Philippine Supreme Court dismissed the charges and warned the GRP that if the definition of an act of terrorism is so broad that it includes acts “hindering the growth of the economy” and “actions [that] are adversely affecting the economy”, it will result in abuse and oppression on the part of the police or military.
The Supreme Court’s prescient warning is little comfort to the more than 70 progressive leaders bearing the brunt of that abuse. By targeting trade union and other NGO leaders for abusive prosecutions, the GRP is yet again showing why it is slipping toward autocratic rule and why Filipino’s are losing faith in democracy.