By Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines (AA) – Human rights advocates have called on Philippines President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to grant amnesty to hundreds of Moro prisoners from the Muslim south they say were wrongly accused of being militants.
In a statement emailed to Anadolu Agency on Saturday, the Suara Bangsamoro and Kawagib Moro Human Rights groups appealed to Duterte to “include Moro prisoners who were falsely accused as local terrorists in his plan to grant general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty to political prisoners."
Amirah Ali Lidasan, head of the Kawagib Moro Human Rights group, said hundreds of indigenous Moro in troubled Mindanao island had been detained in military crackdowns since 2001.
She expressed the groups’ hope that “justice will be rendered to the victims and their families and will help address the historical injustice of military solution to the conflict in the Moro areas, of using discriminatory policies against the Moro people such as equating terrorism to their identity and struggle."
She called for the release of more than 94 Moro detained in 2001 on suspicion of being members of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, and more than 220 others placed in custody after another rebel group laid siege to the majority Christian city of Zamboanga in Sept. 2013.
In the case of the 94 accused of Abu Sayyaf affiliation, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and then Senior State Prosecutor Peter Ong launched a review in 2013, during which two former militants-turned-state witnesses identified only five to 12 of them as members.
“Prosecutor Ong furthered the review and concluded that among the 12 identified, six were innocent. He then gave false hope to the victims and families by saying that he will be releasing his recommendation for the release by December 2013 or early part of 2014," Lidasan said.
"Two years after, DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima has left the agency without any Moro prisoner released nor the case resolved,” she added.
The rights groups also requested a review of the detention of 266 Moro men and women arrested during the 2013 Zamboanga Siege on suspicion of membership to the Moro National Liberation Front.
Of them, only 42 were released in March 2015 after their lawyers’ legal efforts, while the rest reportedly remained without representation.
"As long as the DOJ memorandum and the [bounty] reward system remain, more innocent Moro men, most of whom are poor, will be arrested and paraded as terrorists,” Lidasan warned.
The statement cited recent cases including the arrest of a jeepney dispatcher in April and that of a mango vendor in November.
The camp of Duterte, the outspoken mayor of southern Davao City who is set to become the country’s first leader from Mindanao, could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Numerous armed Muslim groups and a communist insurgency operate in the region, which is rich in resources but among the country’s most underdeveloped.
Duterte, a devout Christian, has backed the outgoing government's peace process with one-time largest Muslim rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as well as indigenous peoples’ calls for greater autonomy.
After his victory in the May 9 election, he even offered cabinet posts to the Communist Party of the Philippines and said he was willing to hold talks with the Abu Sayyaf.
“The Abu Sayyaf is connected with the Mindanao issue. It drove young men to desperation and being radicalized,” the MindaNews website quoted Duterte as saying earlier this week.
The 71-year-old, who won the election on a crime-fighting campaign and vowed to re-impose the death penalty, however, underlined that those who committed serious crimes would be held accountable.