An American volunteer for a human rights group was shot and seriously wounded by unidentified gunmen in the northern Philippines, the latest attack on rights and land defenders in the country, police and colleagues of the man said Wednesday.
Brandon Lee, 37, suffered two gunshot wounds, including one to his face, when he was attacked outside his home in Lagawe town in the northern province of Ifugao on Tuesday, Lagawe police chief Maj. Ernesto Sakway Bekesan said in an incident report obtained by BenarNews.
Lee is from California and married to a Filipina who belongs to an indigenous tribe in northern Ifugao province. He works for the Ifugao Peasant Movement (IPM) and is also a paralegal officer for the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA), according to the local police.
“The victim sustained gunshot wounds on his right upper face area and exited to his right neck area and another gunshot wound on his left back area,” Bekesan said, adding that Lee was still conscious when he was rushed to the hospital.
Doctors said Lee remained in critical condition as of Wednesday, according to the Manila-based news portal Rappler.
The police said the motive for the attack was unclear, and the attackers had yet to be identified.
CHRA said it believed the attack was connected to Lee’s human-rights work. The group alleged that he had been “subjected to different threats and harassment, even in social media” by unidentified men. Police declined to comment.
In 2015, Lee was among human rights workers labeled by the military as supporters and recruiters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). One of Lee’s colleagues, Ricardo Mayumi, was killed last year in a similar attack, rights groups said.
The CHRA and other human rights organizations subsequently submitted a position paper to the U.S. Congress’ Human Rights Commission in Washington, in which it cited the death threats against Lee.
Last week, London-based rights group Global Witness (GW) reported that the Philippines had emerged as the deadliest place for farmers, rights activists and environmental defenders, with 30 recorded killings in 2018.
GW noted an incident in October 2018 when gunmen shot and killed nine sugarcane farmers, including women and teenagers, who were at the center of a longstanding dispute on the central Philippine island of Negros. The next month, hitmen killed Benjamin Ramos, the lawyer who represented the victims’ families.
Lee’s shooting came the same day that a protestant church leader, a prominent rights lawyer and several journalists sought protection from the local government of Cagayan de Oro city in the country’s south after receiving death threats.
Bishop Felixberto Calang, of the Iglesia Independente Filipina, said the threats had forced many from his congregation to avoid church services in fear of getting caught in the violence.
“Our members are shying away from going to our churches for fear they may be red-tagged too,” Calang said, referring to the military’s practice of identifying suspected sympathizers of communist rebels.
Among those who also received threats were Pam Sairo and J.B. Deveza, both of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and human-rights lawyer Beverly Musni.
“It is becoming hard to do our duties because we are too concerned about our safety,” Calang said. “I am forced to look behind my shoulder to see if I was tailed or not.”
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro City contributed to this report.