Philippine police said Monday they would investigate a journalist’s weekend arrest in the southern Philippines through a case of mistaken identity, after human rights and press freedom groups complained about her detention.
Fidelina Margarita Valle, 61, was about to board a flight home to southern Davao City when police arrested her on Sunday at Laguindingan town in Misamis Oriental province. Police held her for several hours before saying they suspected her of murder, a charge that surprised her colleagues.
The Criminal Investigation Detection Group released her on Sunday night after realizing they had mistaken her for someone else.
A witness had “averred that the suspect has a major resemblance but is not the actual suspect who is the subject of the warrant,” police said.
National police chief Gen. Oscar Albayalde defended officers.
“As I said, it happens. This very rarely happens,” Albayalde told reporters in Manila.
“The good thing here is that if you arrest someone, whether they’re the real suspect or it was a mistaken identity, you do not violate their rights,” Albayalde said, promising an “investigation” into the incident.
Valle’s son Rius, an advocate for education of indigenous people, said his mother contacted a nun while Valle was being taken away on Sunday. He sounded the alarm hours later, when he could not reach his mother on her mobile phone.
Journalists in Cagayan de Oro city, where Valle had led a workshop, said police had confirmed the arrest in an operation conducted by another unit.
Following the arrest, Philippine National Police spokesman Col. Bernard Banac said the journalist was being held on a murder charge dating to 2011 and on an arson charge dating to 2006. They claimed that Valle was also known as “Elsa Rentong” and “Tina Maglaya.”
Colleagues quickly disputed the police claims, pointing out that she had been worked as a journalist since the 1980s and most recently wrote columns for the SunStar Davao newspaper before transferring to another publication, Davao Today.
Valle’s relatives, colleagues and friends eventually traced her to the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
In Manila, Salvador Panelo, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, commented on the case.
“She really resembles the subject of the warrant. If it was mistaken identity, the police would owe that journalist an apology,” he said.
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The Davao Today, meanwhile, slammed police for detaining Valle.
“For us, the claim of authorities against the person of Valle was preposterous, baseless and without solid evidence. They carried out the arrest to the detriment of Valle’s person and put her life (in) great danger,” the paper said in a statement.
It noted that Valle had worked a journalist her entire professional life. For the past two decades, she has worked as a media consultant for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration and other groups.
“As a columnist, she is into active journalistic writing with several feature stories on the lives of the people of Mindanao, especially the indigenous people. She was deeply involved in media work for development among grassroots organizations and human rights groups,” Davao Today said.
“We firmly believe that individuals must not be subjects to mistaken identity,” it said, adding that police should thoroughly vet their sources, noting its recent drug war operations have been “deadly and bloody that killed thousands of individuals under questionable circumstances.”
Last year, three police officers were convicted of murdering a 17 year-old boy they had mistaken as a drug dealer.
Davao Today said the arrest of Valle only worsened police impunity in the Philippines.
Duterte imposed martial law across the Philippine south, where Valle was arrested, more than two years ago to counter Islamic State-linked militants.
“We feel afraid of the dangerous actions of the PNP (police) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Such moves would lay the ground for attacks against the media and community development workers,” Davao Today said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the arrest was not lawful, “but a criminal abduction” of a veteran community journalist. It decried the “wanton violation” of Valle’s rights.
“This is the equivalent of ‘shoot now, ask questions later’,” the NUJP said in a statement. “And the truth is that Ms. Valle’s abduction could have had dire, even fatal consequences.”
NUJP demanded that those involved in Valle’s arrest be prosecuted.
Jojo Rinoza in Dagup City, Philippines, contributed to this report.