Police and soldiers arrested 19 people in a convoy delivering food aid in the southern Philippines, including a former and a current member of congress, for allegedly taking children from a school without parental consent, a local NGO said Thursday.
The Save Our Schools Network said the convoy was part of its solidarity mission to send food and supplies to a school in Talaingad, a remote town on Mindanao island, when it ran into trouble on Wednesday. Philippine media reported that more than 70 people were with the convoy.
“On its way to Tagum City, they were shot twice. Two of the vehicles were flat due to iron spikes and one windshield cracked when a stone was thrown at it,” the group said in a statement.
Police officers and army troops later stopped the convoy and took its occupants into custody, the group said.
Among those detained were Satur Ocampo, a former congressman, and France Castro, a current member of the House of Representatives.
“Practically, they have detained us. They are trying to find cases to charge us with, but they can’t. They should immediately release us,” Castro said, adding they were charged with transporting children without consent from their parents.
Capt. Jerry Lamosao, spokesman of the 10th Army Division, said the group members were suspected of violating the country’s anti-human trafficking and child abuse laws.
He said authorities determined that some minors between the ages of 14 and 17 were in the convoy, but did not release details.
Area commander Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal said the convoy was stopped after the authorities received complaints from some parents and tribal elders that their children were allegedly taken by force.
One mother complained that a child had been taken by the group and was missing for five days, he said.
“I thank the authorities for they were able to flag down the vehicles and found the children,” local politician Jayvee Tyron Uy said.
Ocampo said incursions by a paramilitary group shut down the school, after the military alleged that members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) had infiltrated it.
He said the caravan was rescuing the children, but a social welfare officer accused the group of having no clearance and authorization.
“Nonetheless, they charged us for transporting the children without prior clearance or consent. I’m used to that kind of political harassment. I will not stop in defending the rights of the people. So I guess I’ll have to risk it,” Ocampo said.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan, demanded the immediate release of colleagues, students and teachers from police custody.
“We also received preposterous reports that Ocampo and Castro are being threatened with fabricated charges of human trafficking, when they and other mission delegates were there to provide support and aid to Lumad residents, including children, who are facing daily threats and harassment from the military in the community,” Palabay said, referring to indigenous tribes.
“Many parents of the Lumad students have previously evacuated from the community and are awaiting their children,” she said.
“We are dissuading the authorities from filing fabricated charges against Ocampo and Castro lest they lose face in court and be condemned for yet another form of judicial harassment,” she added.
The incident came amid an intensified military operation against the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Earlier this month, Vicente Ladlad, 68, a ranking leader of CPP, was arrested along with two comrades in a suburb north of Manila. Ladlad allegedly played a role in the deaths of dozens of leftist guerrillas who were killed on suspicion of being government spies.
The remains of 67 people believed to be former CPP rebels were unearthed in 2006 in the central island of Leyte.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.