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Spurious arrest of Church worker in Mindanao

MANILA (UCAN): Julito Rivera Otacan, a member of the Rural Missionaries of The Philippines, was arrested together with five indigenous people from the Banwaon group during a raid on a village in the southern Philippines and charged with the illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Soldiers and police swooped on the village of Balit in San Luis town, Agusan del Sur province, claiming that they were looking for Communist rebels on October 27.
The military and police authorities claim that they discovered a .38 calibre revolver, two fragmentation grenades and several improvised explosive devices during their search of homes and community premises.
The Rural Missionaries of The Philippines is an inter-diocesan and inter-congregational organisation of the Catholic Church made up of religious and lay people who live and work in and among the poor communities in the hinterlands of the country.
A project manager, Maridel Fano, described the arrest of Otacan, who she called the link person between the local Church and the indigenous communities, as an attack on the Church.
“Otacan is the link that the local Church has with the poor tribal communities,” she said.
“The military has been targeting this community because people are asserting their right to hold and use their ancestral land,” Fano explained.
She said the Banwaon have been extremely vocal in their opposition to mining and logging operations in the area.
Norma Dollaga, the regional convener of the ecumenical group, Dambana, called on the government to allow an independent investigation into the arrests of the six people.
“There are allegations that the evidence found was planted by state forces,” Dollaga pointed out.
Fano claims that since martial law was declared in Mindanao in May, attacks and harassment of Church groups and human rights advocates have intensified over and above what was already a high level.
The president, Rodrigo Duterte, declared martial law across the southern Philippines following the terrorist attack by the Maute Group on May 23 on the city of Marawi.
Rolando Felix, the regional chief of police, said an investigation into the arrests was still ongoing, as it has not yet been determined whether the five who were arrested are Communist rebels or not.
The soldiers and police that carried out the raid are now claiming that a rebel flag was also found in addition to the revolver and ammunition.
People are naturally suspicious of claims made by the law enforcement authorities, as it is known that they are often on the payroll of mining and logging companies that want to operate on the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples, which are supposed to be protected by law.

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