The brutal killing of another Filipino rights activist is fresh in the mind of Sr Patricia Fox – spurring the 73-year-old Australian nun to keep campaigning against oppression in the Philippines.
Randall Echanis, 72, a peasant leader who chaired the left-wing Anakpawis party-list and was a peace consultant, was stabbed many times and shot in the head in his apartment on August 10, adding to a long list of suspected extrajudicial killings that target political activists, and are rarely investigated thoroughly.
Mr Echanis had been a long-time friend of Sr Fox, who worked for 27 years in the Philippines, but is now blacklisted and banned from entering the country.
“I was really shocked when I heard about his killing. He was brutally tortured and murdered,” Sr Fox said from the Convent of Our Lady of Sion in Melbourne’s Box Hill, where she keeps in close contact via Zoom with Church activists across South East Asia.
Sr Fox earned the ire of the Philippines’s authoritarian president Rodrigo Duterte because of her human rights work supporting disadvantaged farm and factory workers.
She made headlines around the world when she was forced to flee the country in November 2018 – despite decades of Church service, co-founding and leading the Our Lady of Sion order there.
Sr Fox said the killing of Mr Echanis illustrated how the Philippines had become a place of violence and terror as the Duterte government undertook a “clamping down” – silencing the media and “red tagging” (naming of people as terrorists and enemies of the government).
“A lot of my friends have had tarpaulins put up in various barangays (villages) saying they are New People’s Army (communists), they are terrorists etcetera,” she said.
“It’s very dangerous. A lot of them have been arrested or killed, and Randall (Echanis) was one of those.”
Sr Fox also named another activist, Zara Alvarez, who was killed only one week after Mr Echanis – shot down in a city street by “unidentified perpetrators”.
A “war on drugs” is another part of President Duterte’s wide-ranging crackdown on civil society.
Since he took office in June 2016, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has officially recognised 5810 killings, up until the end of July this year.
Human Rights Watch has found that the rate of killings has increased dramatically since curfews and lockdowns have been introduced to deal with COVID-19.
Bishop of Parramatta, Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, recently highlighted the escalating attacks on human rights activists during an online forum “Church People’s Prophetic Voices against State Terrorism in the Philippines”.
“These acts are even more deplorable when committed by the government institutions such as the police and the military, which are supposed to protect and defend the people,” Bishop Long, the chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service, said.
Bishop Long said under the Duterte government’s war against drugs “a spate of extrajudicial killings has continued unabated, causing a reign of terror in many communities”.
“The government’s claim of ensuring and protecting those who have less in life appears to be merely lip service when the state itself violates and disregards the rights of the poor,” he said.
“It seems like this is not so much a war against drugs but rather a war against the workers, farmers and the marginalised in society.”
Bishop Long said leaders such as lawyers, human rights defenders, and bishops, priests, nuns and other religious leaders had been charged with sedition and accused of terrorist links for “speaking truth to power”.
“The Philippines will not be seen as a democratic nation while this is the response to raising legitimate concerns or simply holding opinions that are different from those of the government,” he said.
Sr Fox said Randall Echanis had led the farmers’ movement for genuine land reform since his youth.
He had been arrested and tortured under the regime of President Marcos and then arrested twice under other presidents.
As a lawyer, Sr Fox had assisted him in jail.
Now she wants to know the real story about his torture and killing, and is using her network of justice advocates across Asia to lobby for a proper investigation.
She said no forensic evidence was taken from the crime scene and the police had misrepresented certain evidence.
“It was in the early hours of the morning and the autopsy showed he had blows to the head and several shallow stab wounds before a fatal stab which tore through his aorta,” Sr Fox said.
“He was clearly tortured and others in the building heard shouts. A neighbour was also found dead in his room.”
Sr Fox said given that there was a strict curfew in place, it raised questions about how the killers were able to reach Mr Echanis’ apartment, suggesting police or military had to be compliant.
“Other poor people going out just to get water are abused and arrested,” she said.
By Mark Bowling. Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Leader, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.