Front Line Defenders (FLD), a human rights organisation, has urged the authorities in the Philippines to immediately cease the investigation and drop all charges against Windel Bolinget, an indigenous rights defender charged in a murder case. The FLD believes that he is being targeted solely as a result of his work in the defence of human rights.
They also want the authorities to immediately cease the ongoing harassment and surveillance on the family and colleagues of Bolinget, who is also Chairperson of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), an alliance of over 300 indigenous people’s organisations in the Cordillera region of the Philippines.
The FLD is also calling on government to cease targeting all human rights defenders in the Philippines and guarantee in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.
Since late December, there has been intensified targeting of Bolinget, in relation to what is believed to be a trumped-up murder case filed against him in August 2020. The case, filed by the by the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Taguma City, Davao del Norte, names Windel Bolinget and 10 other individuals.
The defender was informed of the warrant for his arrest in the last week of December. Since then, there has been constant police surveillance of his office and locality and police have reportedly been harassing his family and friends for information on his whereabouts.
Bolinget has reportedly been leading many of CPA’s campaigns against human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, trumped-up cases, enforced disappearance, harassment, and intimidation of Cordillera indigenous peoples. He has also been at the forefront of local movements against large-scale mining projects, mega-dams and other projects that pose a threat to the environment.
On August 6, 2020, a criminal case was filed at Davao del Norte, against 10 individuals, including Bolinget, for their alleged involvement in the murder of Garito Malibato, a member of a local indigenous people’s organisation called Karadyawan, on March 21, 2018. On September 25, 2020, the Regional Trial Court in Tagum City issued a warrant of arrest for murder against the individuals. However, the CAP and Windel Bolinget were only made aware of the arrest warrant in the last week of December 2020.
The murder charges brought against the defender appear to be completely fabricated, according to Clemente Bautista Jr., International Networks Coordinator, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), adding that Bolinget has never been to Barangay Gupitan, Kapalong, where Garito Malibato was murdered.
Bautista said in a statement: “Following the murder, local indigenous organisations pointed to a paramilitary group as the perpetrators. Further, a relative of the victim also expressed that Malibato had received several death threats from the same paramilitary group before he was killed.
“With the defender yet to be arrested, police intelligence agents have regularly been approaching relatives, friends and colleagues of the human rights defender, interrogating them for information on his whereabouts. There has also been heavy physical surveillance, with men, believed to be members and assets of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police, walking around Windel Bolinget’s house and also the regional secretariat of the CPA, in search for the defender.
“Front Line Defenders recognises the importance of investigating and elucidating all the facts about the murder of Garito Malibato. Nevertheless, it believes that this latest warrant of arrest forms part of a wider pattern by the military to intimidate and vilify human rights defenders by linking them to crimes they did not commit or had no involvement in. Over the past years, several human rights defenders, including several peasant leaders of the CPA have been killed in this manner, after they were red-tagged and judicially harassed.
“Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders in the Philippines. Front Line Defenders condemns the judicial harassment of Windel Bolinget and the fabricated charges brought against him, as it believes he is being targeted for his legitimate and peaceful work for the protection of human rights.”