Manila, Philippines — When Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano were abducted last month while volunteering with fishing communities opposed to reclamation activities in Manila Bay, human rights groups suspected the state was involved.
When the security forces claimed the pair had surrendered as communist rebels, their contemporaries believed they had been forced into doing so but were unable to prove it.
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At a government-organised news conference, they got their answer.
Rather than going along with the official story, Castro, 23, and Tamano, 22, shocked everyone by announcing they had been abducted by military officers who had forced them to surrender.
“They were confident we would lie to the public,” Castro told Al Jazeera. “The important thing was for the public to know the truth.”
The two activists filed for a legal protection order after speaking publicly.
In the court filing, they accused military members of forcing them into an SUV, blindfolding them, and subjecting them to eight days of interrogation. Facing death threats from their captors, the two women were often brought to tears and feared for their lives.
“I was hoping we could get out alive,” Castro said. “But there was a possibility it wasn’t going to happen.”
The military has maintained that Castro and Tamano were not abducted, but kidnapped by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) before escaping and surrendering to the military. It filed perjury charges against the two activists on Wednesday.
“There is no abduction based on the duo’s sworn statement,” army spokesperson Col Xerxes Trinidad told Al Jazeera, citing documentation that “they surrendered and sought the assistance of the military for them [to] be reintegrated into mainstream society”.
The accounts of Castro and Tamano, who spoke to Al Jazeera about their experience, provide a rare insight into the alleged abduction of activists in the Philippines.
At least 18 community organisers and activists have been abducted since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office in June 2022. Most of the time, the victims “don’t surface, or they parrot the narrative forced upon them by the state”, said Dino de Leon, the lawyer for Tamano and Castro.
Many activists are pressured into surrendering after being “red-tagged” or falsely branded as rebels affiliated with the NPA, which has been fighting against the government for more than 50 years. Most never dare to speak out against state security forces.
“I was really nervous,” Tamano recalled, thinking before the news conference. “I knew that it was something that is usually not done.”
Before they disappeared, the activists were volunteering with AKAP Ka Manila Bay in Bataan, about three hours’ drive from Manila. The group opposes land reclamation projects in Manila Bay that have stoked concern over their environmental impact and the involvement of Chinese investors.
Marcos said in August he would suspend the reclamation projects pending further environmental review, but ships have continued dredging the bay.
Bataan, which lies across the bay from the capital, is a “grey area” where reliable data on land reclamation has not been collected by environmental groups, said Aldrein Silanga, an advocacy officer with the Manila-based environmental NGO Kalikasan PNE.
After arriving in Bataan, Castro and Tamano said they discovered several projects that began during coronavirus lockdowns without the knowledge of nearby communities. They even witnessed one village being demolished after residents refused an offer of cash compensation and were forced to leave.
They quickly realised they were being watched when they were approached multiple times by a man who photographed them and accused them of being communist rebels. Castro’s mother, Rosalie, was visited at her home by men identifying themselves as military officers and asking about her daughter.
“Any advocates against the reclamation are being red-tagged,” Castro said.
Castro and Tamano were walking to a bus stop on September 2 when they were abducted by armed men wearing face masks, who forced them into an SUV when they tried to run away.
At first, the pair were unsure who had abducted them. But one man knew Castro’s name and mentioned that her mother was looking for her, leading her to suspect the military.
The abductors interrogated the two women in separate rooms, according to the court filing, threatening to use physical violence and to arrest them on charges of rebellion. One told Tamano: “We will cut out your tongue if you do not speak.”
“I thought they were going to shoot me that night,” Castro said. “I was blindfolded. Our hands were tied. I was waiting for a bullet to be shot at me.”
The pair were kept in a motel in separate rooms, with five to six men in each, and continuously interrogated, according to the court filing. On the third day, Castro was given a form with the stamp of the 70th Infantry Battalion.
One of the abductors showed Castro his graduation picture from the military academy, while another shared a video from an encounter with rebels. “It was really obvious” they were members of the military, Castro said.
‘They were exposed’
On September 12, the military announced that Castro and Tamano had surrendered, claiming they were abducted by communist rebels after working with AKAP Ka, which they claimed was linked to front organisations of the NPA.
According to the military, the pair had realised the error of their ways — a common narrative in surrenders allegedly forced by the military. “They wanted us to tell the people that what we are doing is wrong,” Castro said.
Trinidad, the military spokesperson, said the statements were made voluntarily and were not given under duress.
But when the government called a news conference on September 19, Castro and Tamano decided to deviate from that narrative, even if it meant they would be arrested or face other consequences.
“We reached an agreement that it didn’t matter what would happen to us,” Tamano said. “It was the only opportunity where we could tell the truth.”
Castro, sitting alongside a military officer and a member of the government’s anti-communist task force, went off script, saying they had been abducted by the military and “obliged to surrender because they threatened to kill us”.
Military officers told the two women they could face charges of perjury if they reneged on their surrender. The next day, the anti-communist task force said it felt “betrayed” and “hoodwinked”.
“We expected that they would become defensive because they were exposed,” Tamano said.
Castro and Tamano now face perjury charges filed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which can carry as many as 10 years in prison.
Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro accused the two women of being liars.
“The [military] filed criminal charges because we want to teach them a lesson that they can’t jerk us around,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Trinidad, the army spokesperson, told Al Jazeera the military would cooperate with court proceedings and inquiries from the country’s Commission on Human Rights, but rejected calls for an independent investigation into the disappearances, saying the involvement of outside NGOs would be “a slap in the face on our judiciary system”.
Last month, rights groups accused the military of abducting three Indigenous activists investigating alleged human rights violations in the central Mindoro region. The Philippine Army said they were arrested legitimately.
De Leon, who also represents jailed Senator Leila de Lima, said the international community “must be involved” in pressuring the Philippine military to institute human rights reforms. The United States is a key defence partner of the Philippines and recently concluded two weeks of joint military drills with the country’s armed forces.
“There are no institutions [in the Philippines] strong enough to counterbalance state elements who author things like this,” de Leon said.
Castro and Tamano want to return to Bataan and continue their work, but they worry it is not safe. Still, their ordeal has only cemented their resolve.
“It made us realise that what we are doing is right,” Castro said.