(New York) - The Philippine authorities should immediately release Remigio Saladero, Jr., a labor lawyer who was arrested on charges that appeared to be politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said today.
Philippine police arrested Saladero on October 23, 2008, at his law office in Antipolo City, in Rizal province, his attorney said. The police showed a 2006 arrest warrant for a case of multiple murder and attempted murder in Oriental Mindoro province that bore the name - Remegio Saladero alias Ka Patrick - and a different address. They also confiscated Saladero's computer hard drive, laptop and mobile phone.
"Suddenly arresting a well-established activist lawyer for a two-year-old multiple murder case in another province should set off alarm bells," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This smacks of harassment, pure and simple."
Saladero's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he was allowed to meet with Saladero in jail only after Saladero had been interrogated for six hours, even though he was entitled to legal counsel from the start of the interrogation. He is currently being held in the Calapan City provincial jail.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that Saladero was arrested because of the groups and individuals he has represented. His clients include hundreds of workers who have brought wrongful dismissal cases and suspected members of the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Saladero is the board chairperson of the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE) and chief legal counsel for Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), an alliance of trade unions.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States and the European Union to monitor Saladero's case closely and to call for his immediate release.
In recent years, the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has come under intense international and domestic criticism over hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of leftist activists, journalists, lawyers and clergy by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.
In response to the criticism, the number of such killings dropped sharply, but convictions of perpetrators for serious crimes of this type remain negligible. Local activists have also expressed concern that the continuing harassment and arrests of activists on trumped-up charges shows that the government is only changing its tactics.
Several other cases bear similarities to Saladero's arrest, and courts have subsequently declared the arrests illegal. In August 2008, a judge in Tagaytay City found the arrest and detention of the so-called "Tagaytay Five," who had been advocates for farmers' concerns, unlawful, and ordered their release. Security forces had arrested and detained the five - Riel Custodio, Axel Pinpin, Aristides Sarmiento, Enrico Ybanez and Michael Masayes - in a joint military-police operation in April 2006 and forced them to admit they were members of the New People's Army.
In May 2007 armed men abducted a church pastor, Berlin Guerrero, in Laguna province. Several days later, he resurfaced in police custody and he was charged with being an NPA leader. In September 2008, the Court of Appeals in Manila dismissed charges of sedition and murder against him, and ordered his immediate release.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders sets out a series of principles and rights, based on human rights standards enshrined in international instruments. The declaration states that everyone has the right to promote the protection and realization of human rights.
"Saladero's arrest shows the Philippine government is not sincere in its pledges to stop harassing lawyers and activists," Pearson said. "It's not just Saladero's rights that are undermined, but the rights of all Filipinos ever in need of a lawyer."