On August 17 in the central Philippine island of Negros, unidentified gunmen fatally shot Zara Alvarez, a legal worker for the human rights group Karapatan. Alvarez, 39, was the thirteenth human rights defender killed in the Philippines in the past four years. A week earlier, unidentified assailants killed peasant leader Randall Echanis, 72, inside his home in Quezon City, in Metro Manila.
The victims shared similar backgrounds. They both worked in leftist, grassroots organizations that authorities allege are linked to the communist insurgency. They had also been subjected to “red-tagging,” a form of political harassment against activists in which authorities label them “communists” – a label that often results in death.
Both murders underscore the widespread impunity for killings of leftist activists in the Philippines. The Department of Justice under the Duterte administration had listed Echanis and Alvarez on a terrorist list, although their names were subsequently removed. Another activist on that list, Randy Malayao, was shot dead in January 2019.
The murders of Alvarez and Echanis also show how the government’s new anti-terrorism law can be misused. The Anti-Terrorism Council, the chief enforcer of the law, is empowered to designate individuals as terrorists. The council is composed of officials from the executive department – some of whom belong to agencies long engaged in “red-tagging.”
The Philippines has a long list of leftist activists whom state security forces have extrajudicially executed on the pretext of combatting the country’s communist insurgency. These deaths occur because government and military officials perceive activists like Alvarez and Echanis, who work to uphold or reform the law, as stand-ins for armed insurgents.
The government has an obligation to ensure that all activists in the Philippines have the full protection of the law, and not be subject to harassment, attack, and murder.