Updated at 11:59 a.m. ET on 2019-06-17
Unidentified gunmen shot dead four human rights activists in the past two days in the Philippines, police said Monday, a week after U.N. officials called for an independent probe into alleged human rights violations linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war that has killed thousands since 2016.
The latest attacks bring to 208 the number of deaths among rights defenders during the past three years, according to human rights groups. Those deaths are separate from the tally of drug-related fatalities.
On Saturday, Ryan Hubilla and Nelly Bagasala, local staff members of rights group Karapatan were shot at close range by motorcycle-riding men in the eastern province of Sorsogon. The same pattern of attack on Monday befell Neptali Morada, an activist of the left-leaning Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Movement). On Sunday, peasant leader Nonoy Palma was also gunned down in the southern province of Bukidnon.
Philippine National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde said investigators were still trying to confirm the affiliation of the four victims.
"We also have to establish if they were really members [of human rights groups]," Albayalde told reporters in Manila. "Who knows if [rights] groups were merely taking advantage of their killings."
Morada, 45, was gunned down by a suspect who was on board a white vehicle, while he was riding his motorcycle on the way to his office, regional police spokeswoman Maj. Malou Calubaquib told reporters.
“These are the recent alarming attacks in the a spate of condemnable violence and hostility directed towards members of the activist groups particularly in areas where there is increased military presence,” said Jacqueline Anne de Guia, a spokeswoman for the independent Commission on Human Rights, noting that the victims had been previously subjected to “alleged periodic surveillance” by state security forces.
“We cannot stress enough that swift justice need to be pursued to stop the normalization of violence in our society,” she said. “The killings have been continuing and escalating, but there is seemingly no proactive actions being done to protect human rights activists from another brash attack.”
Cristina Palabay, of the local rights group Karapatan, condemned the attacks. She said statements from her colleagues indicated that Hubilla, a 22-year-old senior high school student who joined the group in 2016, and Bagasala, 69, had been tailed by a pickup truck and a motorcycle before the shooting took place.
"Human rights workers like young Ryan and Nelly are hard to find,” she said. “It takes commitment, passion, empathy, and yes, real courage to face all obstacles, all the dangers to help individuals and communities confronting the powers-that-be.”
On Sunday, Palma, a member of Philippine Peasant Movement, was outside his home when he was attacked by three motorcycle-riding men in Bukidnon, according to witnesses. He had been working for the rights of farmers in his area, and colleagues said he may have incurred the ire of local officials because of his activism.
Last week, a group of 11 special rapporteurs and independent experts urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to launch an investigation into the killings, pointing out what they had described as a sharp spike in rights abuses in the country amid a “staggering number of unlawful deaths.”
But Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, derided the call of the U.N. rights experts as based on "a biased and absolutely false recital of facts, adulterated with malicious imputations.”
The police have recorded about 5,300 killings of suspected dealers and pushers since Duterte became president three years ago, but rights groups have said the number could be at least four times as many.
Duterte, 74, is already facing two murder complaints before the Hague-based International Criminal Court. The first was filed by a former policeman and a self-confessed assassin who alleged that Duterte ordered the killings of criminals and opponents when he was the longtime mayor of Davao city in the south; and the second, filed by relatives of eight people killed in the drug war.
Duterte withdrew the Philippines from an international treaty that created the ICC, after initially saying he welcomed any probe into his bloody war on drugs.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.
Updated to add comments from Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde.