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Manhunt alarms Philippine Church leaders

MANILA (UCAN): “The continued use of trumped-up charges to silence and impede the work of activists merely attests to the repressive and tyrannical character of the Duterte government,” Cristina Palabay of the human rights group, Karapatan, said in reaction to the Philippine National Police instigating a manhunt for four Filipino activists, all former leftist members of the Lower House of Congress. 
Arrest warrants were issued against Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casino of the Bayan Muna party, Rafael Mariano of the Anakpawis party, and Liza Maza of the women’s party Gabriela, and an elite force deployed to find and arrest them in connection with a murder case filed 12 years ago.
A judge in the northern province of Nueva Ecija said she found probable cause against the accused and issued the arrest order, dated July 11.
Ironically, Mariano was Agrarian Reform chief for the president, Rodrigo Duterte, until last year, while Maza heads the government’s National Anti-Poverty Commission.
The case stems from a complaint filed 12 years ago by two widows who accuse the activists of conspiring to kill their husbands.
They allege that in 2000, the accused met and planned to kill the victims, farmers who supported the legislators, but who reportedly wanted to support a rival party, Akbayan.
However, police records show that one of the farmers was killed in 2004 in a land dispute, while the other died in a traffic accident in 2003.
Father Edwin Gariguez, head of the National Secretariat for Social Action/Caritas Philippines, said the new allegations were meant to silence critics of the government.
“This is a common strategy of the government and the military to harass and to silence opposition,” he said, adding that it is a “deplorable tactic.”
Father Gariguez said, “We support the causes of the (activists). We demand a halt to tyranny and harassment of progressive groups,” 
Benedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan said the allegations against the former legislators were “definitely a case of harassment.”
She said, “I personally know these four people and they cannot possibly have done what they are accused of,” adding that what “the so-called witnesses are saying is hearsay.”
Neri Colmenares, chairperson of Bayan Muna, said the allegations were “incredible, preposterous and outright lies.”
Supporters of the four former legislators cried “political persecution,” noting that the case was revived when the peace process between the government and communist rebels broke down.
The 79-year Ocampo was the longest-serving political prisoner during the time of late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. 
He negotiated a peace agreement between the government and the communist rebels after the ouster of the former strongman.
Palabay said the circumstances surrounding the case “reveal an orchestrated effort by militarists … to persecute those who dare to criticise the government.”
She said a government agency, dubbed the Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action, has been tasked with filing cases in court against activists and other figures, and warned of a “widespread witch-hunt” against Duterte’s critics in the coming days.
Lawyers are seeking the dismissal of the charges.