Armed policemen go after protesting farmers during the violent dispersal on April 1 in the province of Cotabato in Mindanao. (Photo courtesy of Kilab)
Philippine Catholic and Protestant bishops are calling for an independent investigation into the shooting of protesting farmers in the southern Philippines that resulted in the death of at least three people on April 1.
"We demand accountability of the part of the authorities who ordered the police to open fire," read a statement by the Ecumenical Bishops Forum. "We call for an independent investigation by a competent authority to determine accountabilities," it added.
The bishops said they want "to seek justice for the victims of this unconscionable act against the people."
At least three protesters were killed, 116 were wounded, and 89 were reported missing after policemen dispersed some 6,000 farmers and tribal people who blocked a major highway in the province of Cotabato on April 1.
The farmers were demanding 15,000 sacks of rice and the immediate release of calamity funds to address the ongoing drought brought about by the El Nino phenomenon.
Initial reports by the Commission on Human Rights noted that the policemen who fired their weapons at protesting farmers violated human rights and the U.N. guidelines on the use of force by law enforcement.
"The farmers were already on their knees when shot by policemen," said Erlan Deluvio, commission regional director.
"We were able to gather information, witnesses and affidavits sworn under oath. We have a formal report," he said. Deluvio said his office will look into the possible culpability of top police officials under the doctrine of command responsibility.
The human rights official said the government's failure to provide food to the farmers affected by the drought "is negligence ... and a violation of human rights."
Activists hold a protest rally outside the national police headquarters in Manila on April 4 to condemn the violent April 1 dispersal of protesters in the province of Cotabato. (Photo by Mike Taboy)
Church and human rights activists decried on April 4 what they described as the "continuing harassment" being experienced by the farmers who have since sought shelter in a United Methodist Church compound in Kidapawan City.
Fully-armed police personnel have surrounded the church compound while soldiers of the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army blocked the main entrance to the church.
At least two military armored personnel carriers were seen patrolling the perimeter of the compound where some 3,000 farmers, their families, and supporters are temporarily taking shelter.
Several Catholic priests, nuns, seminarians, Protestant pastors and lay people have since joined the farmers in the compound.
"We stand with the poor farmers and tribal people to condemn this ruthless and violent dispersal," read a statement released by the Promotion of Church People’s Response.
"We demand that calamity support be immediately given to those stricken by drought in Mindanao. May our hearts be moved with compassion. These cries for food deserve a human and caring response," the statement said.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the Catholic bishops' conference, appealed to the families of the victims "not to give in to the cycle of vengeance but instead seek ways to restore peace."
"We pray for our farmers in Kidapawan," said Archbishop Villegas, adding that a death is always tragic especially "when violent death visits God's poor."