MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE – 12:26 p.m.) The National Democratic Front of the Philippines is demanding the immediate release of one of its peace consultants and a bishop of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente who were arrested in Ozamiz City this week.
Fidel Agcaoili, chairman of the NDFP peace negotiating panel, confirmed to InterAksyon that Rommel Salinas, who authorities described as the “most wanted” New People’s Army commander in Western Mindanao, “is a duly accredited person under the JASIG (Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees). He is the Holder of Document of Identification No. ND978453 under the name of Hermie Abella.”
The JASIG grants protection from surveillance, arrest and prosecution to the members, consultants, staff and security personnel of both parties’ negotiating panels for the duration of the talks.
Salinas was with Bishop Carlo Morales, the cleric’s wife Maria Teofilina, and their driver Isadome Dalid when they were stopped and apprehended at a checkpoint in Barangay Gango Thursday evening. The military claimed a hand grenade was seized from Salinas.
Morales’ wife and driver have since been released but the bishop and Salinas remain detained and will likely be charged with illegal possession of explosives.
“We strongly condemn (Salinas’) arrest as well as those of his companions,” Agcaoili said. “It is obvious from the narration of events that Salinas had been conducting consultations with various sectors, including the religious, when he was arrested.”
Accounts from the IFI, which is also known as the Aglipayan church, quoting Morales said Salinas did, indeed, “presented his ID as an NDFP consultant and JASIG holder” and informed the soldiers and police who stopped them that “the purpose of his travel is to campaign for the fith round of the formal talks between (the government) and NDFP.”
Agcaoili said the next round of negotiations is scheduled for May 27 to June 1.
He said Salinas’ arrest and the continued detention of other NDFP consultants and JASIG holders would not affect the holding of the fifth round but stressed that they would continue to press government on their release under the terms of the security agreement.
Members of the IFI have been keeping vigil at the Ozamiz police station, where Salinas and Morales are detained.
The IFI has condemned the bishop’s arrest, and the National Council of Churches of the Philippines has called the incident an “act of harassment to God’s workers who earnestly work for peace and justice in our land.”
The NCCP said Morales’ wife “is a public school teacher of good standing, a Vacation Church School writer of NCCP and an active member of the Teatro Ekyumenikal, a cultural-liturgical ministry of the NCCP.”
In a separate statement, the NDFP peace panel slammed “a series of incidents involving a number of its consultants” that it called “flagrant violations” of the JASIG.
Among the incidents Agcaoili cited in the statement was the tailing of his fellow NDFP peace panel member Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma, a political consultant, in Manila Tuesday night after meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacanang and visiting protesting farmers from Mindanao camping out at Mendiola. After vainly trying to shake the two men on a motorcycle who followed them, the Tiamzons decided to return to the protest camp where they found help evading their pursuers.
It was the third time the Tiamzons reported being the subject of JASIG violations. In March, they were also tailed on arrival from backchannel talks in The Netherlands while in January, suspected military agents questioned the driver of a rental car they had used on returning to the country from the third round of talks.
“Other NDFP consultants who have also complained of surveillance include Ruben Saluta, Concha Araneta, Tirso Alcantara, Ernesto Lorenzo and Kennedy Bangibang,” Agcaoili said as he urged the government to “look seriously into these incidents and take whatever measures are necessary, saying that they may have severe repercussions on the ongoing peace negotiations.”
The NDFP peace panel chair also expressed “grave concern” over reported military “shoot-to-kill” orders against Northern Mindanao NDFP consultant Pedro Codaste and supposed plans to abduct another Mindana-based consultant, Porferio Tuna.