Human rights groups are calling on the Philippine government to investigate the shooting death earlier this week of Zara Alvarez, a rural health advocate who was the 13th rights activist killed since the Duterte administration took power in mid-2016.
Unidentified assailants gunned down the 39-year-old former education director for Filipino human rights group Karapatan on Monday as she walked to her boarding house in Bacolod city on Negros Island in the central Philippines, police and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
“When will the killings stop? We just buried a peace advocate yesterday and we’re not even through with mourning his death and we now have to grapple with the killing of one of our colleagues,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said in a statement posted on its website Tuesday.
“Zara Alvarez was a fierce and dedicated human rights defender, and her death is a tremendous loss for all of us and those who worked with her in advancing and defending people’s rights – and we strongly call for justice.”
Last week, Randall Echanis, 72, a consultant who was helping broker peace talks between the government and communist guerrillas, was killed at his home in Quezon City, police said. He was buried on Monday.
On Wednesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque condemned the killings of Alvarez and Echanis.
“We denounce any form of violence perpetuated against citizens, including activists. We are a nation of laws and violence has no place in any civilized society,” he said.
Roque also rejected as “unfounded” allegations from human rights activists that the two may have been killed by state security forces.
Investigations into both killings were under way, Roque said, adding it was best to “wait for the formal report from the authorities.”
New York-based HRW said the Philippine government had subjected both Alvarez and Echanis to a form of political harassment known as “red-tagging,” where authorities accused them of having links to the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing.
Echanis was the third consultant to the communist movement and Alvarez was the 13th human rights worker to be killed during the Duterte administration, whose “war on drugs” has left thousands of people dead.
The attacks “underscore the widespread impunity for killings of leftist activists in the Philippines,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, said in a statement posted on the group’s website on Wednesday (local time).
Philippine justice officials under the Duterte administration had put Echanis and Alvarez on a terrorist list, but their names were subsequently removed, according to HRW. Another activist on that list, Randy Malayao, was shot dead in January 2019 as he slept on a bus in northern Luzon.
“The Philippines has a long list of leftist activists whom state security forces have extrajudicially executed on the pretext of combating the country’s communist insurgency,” Robertson said. “These deaths occur because government and military officials perceive activists like Alvarez and Echanis, who work to uphold or reform the law, as stand-ins for armed insurgents.”
Tributes pour in
On Tuesday, Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed concern over the killing of Alvarez.
“So terrible to hear that WHRD Zara Alvarez of @karapatan was shot & killed in the #Philippines last night. She had been smeared, red-tagged & threatened for years,” Lawlor tweeted on Tuesday.
A Catholic bishop in Negros, Gerardo Alminaza, also paid tribute to Alvarez, whom he called a human rights champion, an activist, organizer and ecumenical church worker.
Alvarez was described as a prominent activist on Negros, an island where vast disparities in resources have made it among the strongholds of the communist insurgency.
The single mother whose work involved documenting human rights violations, Alvarez said she had regularly received death threats.
In 2012, Alvarez was arrested on murder charges and jailed for two years for her alleged involvement in an ambush by communist New People’s Army guerrillas that killed an Army officer. She was acquitted of the charges earlier this year.
In April 2018, she was among more than 30 people accused of being rebels and whose pictures were printed on a tarp strung up in a Negros town.
“Zara, they took your life, believing that they can silence the cause you are fighting for. ... But no, Zara, your martyrdom in the cause for justice will inspire us to advance the cry for justice – the cry of the oppressed,” Alminaza said in a statement posted on Facebook.