By Brian Campbell, International Labor Rights Forum
Labor lawyer Remigio Saladero’s arrest at the end of October by joint elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) has spread a blanket of fear across Southern Tagolog’s progressive activist community leaving them wondering, when will I be next? In all, around 70 activists, many of who work as community organizers for political parties, labor unions, churches and non-governmental organizations, have been charged for murder and attempted murder along with Mr. Saladero for allegedly taking up arms against the government and attacking police forces in an ambush in Mindoro province in March 2006. Since Mr. Saladero was arrested in late October, five more of the Southern Tagolog activists have been arrested and currently wait in jail in Calapan City for their day in court, eager to contest the allegations levied at them by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Those activists who have been named as defendants, but not yet arrested, like Emmanuel Asuncion of the Workers’ Assistance Center, try to go on with their normal lives, knowing too well that at any time they too could receive a visit from the military or police and be dragged off to a another province to face murder charges.
Prominent among the activists pursued by the military and charged by the prosecutor in the Mindoro case are at least 15 labor leaders and organizers who have been working for years helping to organize workers in the Philippine export processing zones across CALABARZON (see the list below). Labor rights activists and trade union leaders working with the Workers’ Assistance Center in Cavite, transportation unions, Nestle workers’ union, Toyota workers’ union, Honda workers’ union, and many others are all facing the murder charges levied by a government that is increasingly taking draconian measures to make organizing unions difficult and striking illegal, especially if the military decides it doesn’t like a particular union’s brand of militant unionism.
The case against Mr. Saladero and his fellow labor activists carries all the hallmarks of political prosecution, where prosecutors bring charges against political critics without conducting any preliminary investigation or asking any questions. Rather than operating independently as officers of the court in pursuit of blind justice, the Government prosecutor in Mindoro has blindly filed charges against the activists without conducting his own independent investigation and without asking any questions at all about the credibility of the only witness who allegedly places all 72 activists at the scene of the NPA ambush on March 3, 2006.
The Prosecutor apparently never asked any of the 72 accused whether they had an alibi for that day. He never bothered to ask why, in fact, did the initial prosecution charge from 2006 state that only around 15 armed men attacked the police but that now he was being told by the military that over 72 people were involved. He did not ask how it was possible that somebody suffering from a lifelong polio afflication could have been one of the combatants that day in 2006. He did not ask why the only witness in the case, who admitted being “handled” by the military, did not have a lawyer present as required by law when providing his supposedly incriminating statement. In fact, he never bothered to ask any questions at all before filing these serious charges of murder.
Because the prosecutor never bothered to conduct a preliminary investigation or ask any questions whatsoever, Mr. Saladero’s attorney’s have filed a motion to dismiss all charges on the grounds that the Prosecutor has violated Mr. Saladero and his co-defendants’ constitutional right to due process. They hope to obtain a speedy hearing to prevent any lasting injury to Mr. Saladero, his family, and the workers who rely heavily on his legal aid. Unfortunately, a speedy hearing will be difficult to obtain, as the presiding judge who issued the warrants against Mr. Saladero has already recused himself from the case and the case has already been transferred to a second court. After more than 48 days in jail, Mr. Saladero still has no hearing date set, and if history is any indication, he could be in jail for a year or more before he is able to defend himself.
Political prosecutions are fast becoming the preferred method used by the Philippine government to spread fear across the activist community and chill free speech in the Philippines. All too often, the Department of Justice prosecutors and the presiding judges abet the politicization of the court system by unquestioningly worked hand-in-hand with the AFP. In fact, the AFP is very open about its partisanship and is very public about its avowed goal to dismantle, in any way it can, progressive legal organizations it alleges are enemies of the state.
As the UN Special Rapporteur noted in his findings last fall, “Senior Government officials are attempting to use prosecutions to dismantle the numerous civil society organizations and party list groups that they believe to be fronts for the CPP.” In particular, the Rapporteur identified the Inter-agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), which is an ad hoc mechanism comprised of representatives of several executive branch agencies including the AFP and the Department of Justice (DOJ), whose sole purpose is to “bring charges against members of these civil society organizations and party list groups.” According to the Rapporteur, the reason for this extraordinary prosecutorial effort by IALAG is that seldom have any of the “targets”, like Mr. Saladero, “actually committed any obvious criminal offence.” Unfortunately, by working hand-in-hand with IALAG, the prosecutors for the DOJ appear to be subverting the justice system as a weapon for the government in its efforts to dismantle civil society organizations, not as a tool to seek justice.
It is this policy that many view as responsible for the spate of union killings in the past few years. The AFP has been publicly accusing rank and file union members from the KMU of being terrorists and have been conducting anti-union campaigns against KMU unions. In an effort to defend itself from its own government, the KMU has filed a case with the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association in the hopes that the ILO can bring some international pressure to bear on the Philippine government and end the killings, disappearances, and military harassments. Now, the ILO can add politically charged criminal prosecutions to that list of violations.
In response to the KMU’s complaint, the ILO has requested that the Philippine government allow it to send in a high-level mission to investigate the killings and harassments of union leaders and members, as well as other freedom of association violations in the Philippines. Despite the near unanimity amongst the Philippine trade union movement in favor of the ILO’s visit, the government has, for the past two years, refused to extend an invitation to the ILO.
Recently, when the Philippine government was asked by the office of the United States Trade Representative whether the ILO would be extended an invitation, the government responded (check out the response to question 9) that it “categorically declares that it is not averse to accepting the ILO high level mission.” Then, in almost the same breath, the Government reversed its “categorical acceptance” position and placed two significant qualifications to the invitation:
“Given, however, the political and economic climate now prevailing in the country today, coupled with the ongoing efforts related to the matter, the [government] respectfully submits that it is best that the coming of the high-level mission be held in abeyance pending results of the consultation.”
Apparently, the Government is attempting to pass the buck and lay responsibility for the roadblocks to the ILO mission at the feet of the business community. In its statement to the USTR, the government stated, “The social partners have differing views on the matter which the [government] has to consider.” Since the trade unions are nearly 100% in favor of the ILO high-level mission, the social partner with the “differing view”, of course, is the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP), which represents the Philippine business community at the ILO, including employers such as Nestle, Toyota, Honda, who have been engaged in standoffs with their democratically-elected unions for years. Since the KMU requested ILO intervention to help protect its members, ECOP has been adamantly opposed to any investigation by the ILO.
This should come as no surprise, though, considering that ECOP’s members have been enjoying the strong pro-employer labor policies implemented by the Philippine government that would be the subject of the ILO investigation. In addition to killings and arrests of trade unionists, unions from across the Philippines have felt the impact of governmental measures to limit freedom of association and have consistently raised challenges to the government’s anti-union policies to the ILO. Though the more militant trade unions, such as the KMU, BMP, and the Solidarity of Cavite Workers are bearing much of the brunt of the government’s draconian anti-union policies, every union in the Philippines has been weakened by policies that have made strikes illegal in practice and forming a union nearly impossible.
While the employers have been enjoying a historic period of “labor peace”, where strikes are impossible, workers are prevented from forming unions, and union members have been losing jobs to contract workers, Mr. Saladero and his colleagues, who have spent their lives asking questions and seeking justice for workers, sit in jail as victims of a prosecutor who has not yet bothered to ask any questions, and the government and ECOP won’t let the ILO either.
List of Labor Leaders Charged by Philippine Government in the Mindoro Murder Case