A human rights defender and a motorcycle-taxi driver were shot dead together in Cotabato city in the southern Philippines, police said Thursday, bringing the number of rights workers slain during the three-year-old administration of strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte to around a hundred.
Archad Ayao, who worked on the communications staff at the Regional Human Rights Commission (RHRC) here, was heading home Wednesday night on a motorbike driven by Pio Orteza when they were attacked along a busy street, local police chief Col. Michael Lebanon said.
Both victims were shot at close range and wounded in the head. They were rushed to a nearby hospital but proclaimed dead upon arrival, Lebanon said.
“Based on our initial investigation, the perpetrators followed their target. We are checking on a CCTV to identify the suspects,” he said, adding that police were investigating if the shooting was connected to Ayao’s work.
Ayao, a 28-year-old law student at Notre Dame University (NDU) in Cotabato, was reportedly cracking down on corruption before he was killed, sources said.
The Catholic-run campus deplored Ayao’s murder.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms and deeply mourn the brutal murder of a former student of NDU College of Law Archad Ayao. We pray that justice may be served, and that their gruesome deaths may not just fall as mere statistics,” the NDU College of Law said.
Since 2016, some 100 human rights lawyers and advocates who publicly criticized President Duterte’s controversial war on narcotics have been killed in various incidents across the country.
Last year, Duterte told the national police not to be cowed by rights lawyers and defenders investigating alleged abuses in his government’s drug war, which has left more than 5,000 suspects dead, according to police.
According to Karapatan, a Philippine human rights NGO, at least 50 farm workers and rights advocates have been slain in the central Negros region since Duterte took office in mid-2016. This figure excludes 48 rights defenders associated with Karapatan who were killed since then.
The president also carries a list which, he has said, contains the names of judges, lawyers, and military and police personnel who are known protectors in the illegal drug trade. Several politicians on that list have been killed.
Philippine accusations against UN official
In March, the Philippine military tagged labor groups, fringe political parties and even Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, as belonging to local communist or militant movements, saying they had “truckloads” of evidence to prove their allegations.
The military’s deputy head for civil military operations, Brig. Gen. Antonio Parlade, alleged that the underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) had infiltrated the United Nations, through Tauli-Corpuz. He made the assertion despite a Manila court ruling last year that her name be removed from a petition filed by the justice ministry seeking to declare the CPP a terrorist organization.
In a combined statement issued on Wednesday, three U.N. Special Rapporteurs said Duterte’s administration was going after Tauli-Corpuz because of her “invaluable work defending the human rights” of indigenous peoples in the Philippines.
“The criminalizing discourse used by Philippine public officials undermines the value of the vital work of human rights defenders, denigrates them in the eyes of the public and may put them at risk of threats, violence or other forms of harassment,” the experts said, adding that Duterte administration had accused Tauli-Corpuz of seeking to embarrass it.
The three U.N. experts who spoke in Tauli-Corpuz’s behalf were Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
“We call on the Philippine Government to immediately stop these unacceptable attacks on the human rights work of Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, and to ensure her physical safety,” they said.