Philippines: arbitrary detention of environmental WHRDs Miguela Peniero and Rowena Dasig (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and another UN expert to the Government of the Philippines on 30 October 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government responded after the 60 day deadline on 2 February 2024, however regrettably did not provide detailed information in relation to the basis of the allegations against the women human rights defenders. 

Since the sending of the communication, another arrest warrant dated 18 July 2023 surfaced against Miguela Peniero and six other individuals, alleging that the WHRD is a terrorist under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. In relation to this warrant, Ms. Peniero was transferred to Batangas City Provincial Jail, where her family and paralegals are now able to visit her. However, the WHRD is reportedly monitored closely by military personnel during these visits, with a military officer standing behind her back every time she has a visitor.

Rowena Dasig remains in Lucena City District Jail and is still unable to receive visits from paralegals or family members.  Attempts to visit the WHRD on 12 November 2023 and 10 January 2024 were unsuccessful, with the jail’s authorities citing different reasons including COVID-19 protocols and other internal memos.

In the court case, presentations of witnesses from the prosecutor’s side are still ongoing. 

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response

BACKGROUND

Topic: the alleged arbitrary detention of environmental rights defenders Ms. Miguela Peniero and Ms. Rowena Dasig, ostensibly in connection with their work assessing the social and health impacts of a planned gas-turbine project and natural gas terminal plant in Antimonan, Quezon Province.

Ms. Miguela Peniero is a woman human rights defender, community health worker and farmer, based in Quezon Province. Trained as a paramedic apprentice, Ms. Peniero was involved in medical missions to remote communities to provide health services as well as training for community health workers. Whilst carrying out this work, Ms. Peniero also documents the human rights violations that the individuals and communities she treats are reportedly subjected to, as she mainly serves farm workers, coconut farmers and fisherfolk communities in Quezon Province who have been detrimentally impacted by the increased militarization in the region. Ms. Peniero has ongoing health conditions, related to cancer of the parotid gland and hypothyroidism.

On 4 February 2012, Ms. Peniero was allegedly arbitrarily arrested by members of the 88th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in Gumaca, Quezon whilst on her way to Calauag. They allegedly accused her of being a commander in the New People’s Army (NPA). Ms. Peniero was eventually handed over to the Armed Forces of the Southern Luzon Command in Lucena City. It was reportedly only after she was detained that the warrant for her arrest was made available to Ms. Peniero, in which she was accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. She was convicted on the first charge and sentenced to 8-10 years in prison. Her conviction was appealed, and she was acquitted and released in 2020 after serving eight years in prison.

Ms. Rowena Dasig is an environmental and indigenous rights defender and youth activist from Quezon Province. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Dasig became involved with the Southern Tagalog of Anakbayan, a youth-led advocacy group focused on issues affecting young people, with a particular focus on safeguarding the right to education. In 2021, she was elected as the Secretary General of Anakbayan Southern Tagalog. Ms. Dasig actively campaigned for “Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” (“Safe Return to School”) during the COVID-19 pandemic, for students to be able to return to in-person classes, given that online classes were not accessible to all. In 2022, Ms. Dasig became involved in advocacy work related to human rights and environmental issues, working as a paralegal for other environmental rights defenders, as well campaigning for indigenous communities affected by the construction of dams in the region, such as the Kaliwa-Kanan-Laiban dams. Through working with the Dumagat indigenous tribe in Quezon in the aftermath of numerous typhoons that affected the community’s livelihood, Ms. Dasig began researching the proposed construction of an energy power plant in Quezon and the likely adverse effects it would have on the community for the health of its members and their livelihoods too.

ALLEGATIONS

On 12 July 2023, Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig were carrying out research at Purok Banana, Brgy. Caridad Ibaba, Atimonan, Quezon, to assess the situation of coconut farmers and fisherfolk communities and the potential impact that a planned cycle gas turbine power project and liquefied natural gas terminal plant would have on their health, livelihoods and local biodiversity.

The proposed power plant, operated by Atimonan One Energy, Inc. (A1E), was initially proposed as a coal-fired power plant. However, the plan was reportedly revised in response to advocacy by environmental groups and residents of Atimonan opposing its construction, due to the health risks associated with using fossil fuels, and the loss of lands and livelihood.

Whilst carrying out this research in Antimonan, Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig were staying in a house in the area. At approximately 7:00am on 12 July 2023, Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig were woken up by the residents of the house they were staying in, alerting them that military officers were surrounding the area around the house, including the exit at the rear of the house, ostensibly to prevent Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig from escaping. The military officers, allegedly belonging to the 85th infantry Battalion, were reportedly overheard asking neighbours whether anyone was in the house, to which one woman reportedly responded that she had seen two women, one older and one younger.

Following this, the military then reportedly approached the gate of the house and ordered for the property to be cleared. However, Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig remained inside. At one point, one of the officers shouted for Ms. Peniero to come out of the house, reportedly addressing her by a name she sometimes goes by. Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig remained in the house until approximately 8:00am when they turned themselves over. The authorities then entered the house to conduct a search, and reportedly emerged with firearms and explosives they alleged to have found inside, and which they purported belonged to Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig. Both women refute this allegation.

Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig were then arrested by the 85th Infantry Battalion, on charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. In a post on Facebook following the arrest, the 85th Infantry Battalion publicised an arrest warrant previously issued against Ms. Peniero in 2019, charging her with rebellion, that has since been dismissed. In a media interview, the commanding officer of the 85th Infantry Battalion, LTC Joel R. Johnson, alleged that Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig had been arrested in a certain house, but did not provide further information.

Initially, Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig were allegedly arbitrarily detained in the Atimonan Municipal Police Station and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Lucena City, respectively. However, they were reportedly both transferred to Lucena City District Jail in Quezon Province. Both Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig are reportedly struggling with health concerns, as Ms. Peniero has hypothyroidism, high blood pressure and a slipped disc, whilst Ms. Dasig has the skin condition psoriasis.

On 14 September 2023, Ms. Peniero’s niece and paralegals from organizations supporting the environmental rights defenders attempted to bring medical supplies and other items to the prison for Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig. However, they were prevented from doing so by staff of the Lucena City District Jail, who reportedly insisted that only immediate family were permitted to visit. This happened despite the fact that Ms. Peniero had identified her niece as immediate family, given she has no children of her own.

On 2 October 2023, the public defendant assigned to represent both Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig was permitted to visit them in prison, to receive their statements in preparation for the presentation of the prosecutor’s witnesses.

On 4 October 2023, the presentation of the prosecution’s witnesses took place before the Regional Trial Court, Branch 172 in Gumaca, Quezon. Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig attended the session via Zoom. The next hearing is due to take place on 9 November 2023.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we express serious concern in response to the alleged arbitrary arrest and detention of Ms. Peniero and Ms. Dasig, and the falsified allegations against them, which occurred whilst they were carrying out their peaceful and legitimate human rights activities in communities whose livelihoods and health have reportedly been and are likely to increasingly be detrimentally affected by the environmental impact of the proposed power plant. In this instance, the alleged arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders who are promoting and protecting the rights of others to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is furthermore concerning as it contributes to a chilling effect on civic space in the Philippines, deterring individuals from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and the right to defend the rights of others.

Special Procedures mandate holders have previously expressed such concerns to the Government of the Philippines, particularly in relation to the consistent indictment of human rights defenders on unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations, including the possession of firearms and explosives, in connection with their performing of peaceful and legitimate human rights and environmental rights activities.

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