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Philippines 2023

Extrajudicial executions including under the “war on drugs” continued. The ICC rejected the government’s appeal to stop the resumption of its investigation into violations in the context of the “war on drugs”. The practice of “red-tagging” human rights defenders and others persisted, and counterterrorism legislation was increasingly used against humanitarian workers. Freedom of expression continued to be restricted. Enforced disappearances of environmental activists and Indigenous persons were reported.

Extrajudicial executions

Extrajudicial executions in the context of the “war on drugs” that started in 2016 continued into the second year of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration, despite his public pronouncements that the campaign against illicit drugs would focus on treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration. According to media monitoring by the university-based research group Dahas, at least 329 people were killed in 2023 by state agents during police-led anti-drug operations or by unknown individuals.

Other unlawful killings took place including the killing by police of two teenage boys, John Francis Ompad and Jemboy Baltazar, in separate incidents in August in Rodriguez town, Rizal province, and Navotas City. Eight suspects, including seven police officers, were charged with their killings. In September in Bangued City, unknown assailants shot dead Saniata Liwliwa Gonzales Alzate, a lawyer who provided free legal services to low-income litigants. Investigations into the killing of Alzate were ongoing at year’s end.


Impunity prevailed in most of the many thousands of documented cases of unlawful killings.

In August, government prosecutors affirmed the Department of Justice’s dismissal of a complaint against 17 police officers brought by the wife of labour activist Emmanuel Asuncion. He and eight other activists were killed during police operations in Luzon on 7 March 2021.1 A petition to review the dismissal remained pending at year’s end.

In June, a court sentenced three men to between two and eight years’ imprisonment as accessories in the killing of high-profile radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa (known as Percy Lapid) in October 2022.2 The murder followed his on-air criticism of government officials, including the former director of the Bureau of Corrections, Gerald Bantag, who, despite being charged with Percy Lapid’s death, had not been arrested by year’s end.

In a rare break from the trend and in only the second known conviction of a police officer for drug-related killings, former police officer Jefrey Perez was sentenced to up to 40 years’ imprisonment in March for killing teenagers Carl Arnaiz and Reynaldo de Guzman in 2017.

In July, the ICC Appeals Chamber rejected the government’s appeal against the resumption of the ICC prosecutor’s investigations into crimes against humanity, including in the context of the “war on drugs”.

Repression of dissent

Despite pressure from the UN Human Rights Council to end the practice, “red-tagging” (whereby organizations and individuals are publicly linked to banned communist groups) continued through the year. “Red-tagging” made individuals vulnerable to unlawful killing and other serious human rights violations.3

On 13 March, the government’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict “red-tagged” human rights groups including Karapatan and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights advocates, as well as other legal assistance groups supporting a proposed Human Rights Defenders Protection Law.

In September, the Department of Education publicly stated that 16 public high schools in Metro Manila were involved in recruitment activities for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).4

The authorities increasingly used counterterrorism legislation against “red-tagged” groups, including humanitarian organizations. In March, in the first conviction under the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act since it was enacted in 2012, a court found a former cashier of Catholic group Rural Missionaries of the Philippines guilty of being an accessory to terrorist financing. Four nuns and 11 other members of the group, whom prosecutors accused of being a conduit for the NPA, faced similar charges. In May, the military filed a complaint against humanitarian group Community Empowerment Resource Network for “financing terrorism” under the same law.

In May, a court in Muntinlupa City acquitted prisoner of conscience and former senator Leila de Lima for conspiring to trade in illicit drugs. In November, she was released on bail while the last of the politically-motivated drug-related cases against her continued.5

Freedom of expression

In January and September, the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted prominent journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and the holding company of her news website Rappler of all five tax evasion charges against them.6 In December, the Department of Justice dropped a charge alleging that she had violated the law against foreign ownership of media organizations. Appeals against the verdict in a separate cyber-libel case, in which Maria Ressa was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, and an order to close Rappler remained pending.

In December, a government prosecutor dismissed a complaint alleging violations of environmental laws filed by the police against artist Max Santiago and three others involved in burning an effigy of the president during a protest in July. Charges against 14 other individuals for organizing the protest without a permit remained pending.

Enforced disappearances

On 5 September, two environmental protection workers, Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, disappeared near the capital, Manila. Before releasing them, the military presented the women at a press conference on 19 September, saying that they were being held in a “safe house” after they had sought help from the authorities. However, the women publicly accused the military of abducting them and filed a petition with the Supreme Court requesting protection from the police and other government agencies. The military subsequently filed perjury charges against them, which remained pending at the end of the year.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

On 28 April, “red-tagged” Indigenous Peoples’ rights defenders Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz Jamil de Jesus disappeared in Taytay, Rizal province, after reportedly being forcibly taken by individuals who said they worked for a police agency. In September, the Court of Appeals dismissed a petition filed by their families to compel the authorities to produce Capuyan and de Jesus in court. The Philippine National Police denied any involvement in the case.7

In July, the state Anti-Terrorism Council designated four leaders of an Indigenous Peoples’ rights group, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, as terrorists, enabling the government to investigate their activities and freeze their financial assets.

LGBTI people’s rights

In May, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Women and Gender Equality approved a bill to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. The bill would still need to be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but in September the senate majority leader said this was not a priority.

On 7 October, drag performer Pura Luka Vega was released on bail from police custody after being arrested for breaching a law against “indecent or immoral acts” that “offend any race or religion”. Pura Luka Vega had been arrested three days earlier for reciting the Lord’s Prayer dressed in a costume resembling Jesus. If convicted, they face a substantial fine and/or up to 12 years’ imprisonment.

  1. “Philippines: Ensure justice for ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings and other attacks against activists”, 25 January
  2. “Philippines: Ensure thorough, independent and impartial investigation into journalist’s killing”, 1 February
  3. “Philippines: Oral Statement: Item 6 – Consideration of UPR reports”, 27 March
  4. “Philippines: Amnesty encourages VP Sara to lead DepEd into a rights-based and learner-centered path”, 6 September
  5. Granting Leila de Lima bail must lead to dismissal of last bogus charge against her, 13 November.
  6. “Philippines: Nobel laureate Maria Ressa acquitted on politically-motivated tax evasion charges”, 18 January
  7. “Philippines: Indigenous rights activists reported missing: Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus”, 16 May