Detained Rappler editor Maria Ressa seeks bail after arrest causes outcry

MANILA (REUTERS) – Lawyers for a Philippine news website that has locked horns with President Rodrigo Duterte sought bail on Thursday (Feb 14) after the arrest of its chief executive on libel charges drew condemnation from free press advocates.

Ms Maria Ressa, the award-winning head of news platform Rappler, was served a warrant live on television at her office on Wednesday afternoon for what media watchdogs said were trumped-up charges aimed at intimidating journalists who challenge Mr Duterte’s rule.

Ms Ressa’s lawyer Jose Jesus Disini said he expected her to be released early on Thursday afternoon.

“The only thing that could possibly delay her release is procedural,” he told CNN Philippines.

Ms Ressa is accused of cyber libel over a 2012 Rappler article, which was updated in 2014, that linked a Filipino businessman to murder, human trafficking and drug smuggling.

Rappler cited information contained in a 2002 intelligence report but did not say which agency compiled it.

The businessman’s lawyer said the information was wrong and that the article was defamatory.

Mr Duterte has made no secret of his annoyance at Rappler and has sparred frequently with its reporters, who are known for scrutinising his polices and questioning the accuracy of his sweeping, often bellicose statements.

Such scrutiny has seen Mr Duterte’s detractors engulfed by tides of online anger.

Rappler’s reporting has accused his administration of creating a social media “ecosystem” designed to defend Mr Duterte and threaten and discredit opponents, which the government denies.

The President once suggested Rappler was American-owned and could therefore be linked to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He called Rappler a “fake news outlet” and banned a reporter from covering his events.

However, Mr Duterte’s spokesman, Mr Salvador Panelo, said the libel case had nothing to do with the government and that Mr Duterte had no interest in punishing journalists who challenged him.

“That’s absolutely unrelated. The President has been criticised and he does not bother,” Mr Panelo told DZMM radio.

Ms Ressa spent the night in a room at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters in the capital, Manila, and was unable to post bail because the court was closed. She says she has been released on bail five times in the past.

Mr Francis Lim, a Rappler legal counsel, said the libel case was suddenly revived after it had originally been dismissed for lacking merit.

“It means that the law can be twisted by the powers as a weapon against journalists who expose their wrongdoing to the public,” Mr Lim said in a text message.

Ms Ressa’s detention was criticised by journalists and activists at home and abroad. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said it was an “outrageous” arrest that “must be condemned by all democratic nations”.

London-based Amnesty International said Mr Duterte’s administration was using the law to “relentlessly intimidate and harass journalists”. Mr Dabet Panelo of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it would backfire and called for protests on Friday.

Rappler is no stranger to legal challenges. Its ongoing cases include one on tax evasion and another over its ownership, but it denies wrongdoing.

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5.9-magnitude quake off southern Philippines

MANILA (AFP) – A 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck at sea off the southern Philippine coast late on Friday (Feb 8), though there were no early reports of damage and the local seismology office said it expected none.

The US Geological Survey and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said the quake struck at 7.55pm, its epicentre about 41km east of the town of General Luna on Mindanao island.

It had a relatively shallow depth, measured at 24km by the US agency – and 19km by the local quake monitors – but the latter said in an advisory that it was not expected to have caused damage.

The Philippines is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an arc of intense seismic activity that stretches from quake-prone Japan through South-east Asia and across the Pacific basin.

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Five Abu Sayyaf members surrender over Philippine church bombing

MANILA (Reuters) – A senior Abu Sayyaf operative and four members of the militant group believed to be behind the deadly bombing of a church in the southern Philippines surrendered to authorities over the weekend, the national police chief said on Monday.

Kammah Pae, whom authorities believe to have aided an Indonesian couple in the Jan 27 suicide attack, gave himself up to government troops, Oscar Albayalde said.

“He was forced to surrender,” Albayalde told a media briefing. “He probably didn’t want to die during the military offensive.”

Philippine troops killed three suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and suffered five fatalities in a firefight on Saturday in Patikul, a town in the province of Sulu as troops pursued those behind the church attack.

Albayalde said Kammah denied involvement in the twin bombings at the Jolo cathedral that killed 23 people, including civilians and soldiers, but eyewitnesses’ accounts showed he escorted the Indonesian couple.

Security forces also retrieved an improvised explosive device (IED) and components from his home, Albayalde added.

The five suspects will face multiple murder charges, among others, Albayalde said.

However, the investigation into the church bombing in Sulu, a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf group, is “far from over,” he added.

Abu Sayyaf is a militant organization notorious for kidnappings and extremist factions and has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

“There are more pieces of evidence that need to carefully examined,” Albayalde said.

Before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suggested on Tuesday that the twin explosions may have been a suicide attack, military and police said the bombs within and outside the church appeared to have been detonated remotely.

A few days later, Duterte’s interior minister, Eduardo Ano, said that suicide attack was carried out by an Indonesian couple with the help of Abu Sayyaf.

That would be in line with a claim of responsibility by Islamic State via its Amaq news agency early on Monday.

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8 killed in assault on hideout of Singaporean terrorist

Philippine security forces have killed at least eight militants in an assault on a jungle lair in the volatile south where a Singaporean terrorist was believed to be hiding.

Major-General Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, told reporters that the Singaporean, Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman alias “Muawiyah”, was among the “high-value targets” inside the camp on war-torn Mindanao island.

But Muawiyah apparently survived and managed to flee.

The camp appeared to be the main base of a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) that government troops overran early yesterday morning.

A 226kg bomb was dropped on the main fortification inside the camp, in Sultan sa Barongis town in Maguindanao province, where Muawiyah and six other foreign terrorists – two Malaysians, two Indonesians and two “Middle Eastern-looking” men – were believed to have been housed, he said.

Referring to Muawiyah, Maj-Gen Sobejana said: “We’re still pursuing them, and checking if he was among those hit by the bomb.”

He said the bodies of eight militants were recovered.

The assault followed a clash on Saturday in a neighbouring province that killed eight soldiers and three militants in Patikul town, Sulu province. The clash between a Rangers unit and over 100 Abu Sayyaf fighters broke out as security forces pursued those behind an attack on a Roman Catholic cathedral in Sulu on Jan 27 that left 22 dead.

The Biff is a splinter group of the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main secessionist group that has signed a peace pact with the government. The Biff has pursued a more hardline approach, pledging allegiance to the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Muawiyah is the chief suspect in the kidnapping of three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in Sulu province, in war-torn Mindanao island in 2009. He fled to Mindanao in the 1990s.

He was first reported killed in an air strike in Jolo province in 2012. This was never verified. He was again said to have died in military offensives across Maguindanao in 2016. Again, there was no confirmation.

Another Singaporean militant, Abu Hud Zain, was reported to have been killed in clashes in Mamasapano on Dec 22. His death and those of four other militants reportedly led to the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Cotabato city mall last year.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said the military is keeping tabs on at least 44 foreign terrorists who have sought refuge in Mindanao.

Two are Singaporeans, he said.

Intelligence officials, however, have yet to provide positive identification of any of them. Maj-Gen Sobejana said the Maguindanao camp was run by the Muhajireen Wal-Ansar, also known as the Maguindanao Daulah Islamiyah, a faction of the Biff under the firebrand preacher Esmael Abdulmalik, also known as Abu Turaife.

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Philippines will protest against China's rescue centre in South China Sea: envoy

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) – The Philippines will protest against China’s opening of a maritime rescue centre in the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said, just days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said the nation should be grateful for the move.

Mr Locsin said he supports Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio’s position that the Philippines must contest China’s construction of the rescue centre on Fiery Cross Reef, which Xinhua reported on Jan 29.

Mr Carpio was part of the Philippine delegation which won a 2016 ruling that China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea exceeded the law.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China has built a web of artificial islands with runways and lighthouses to exert influence in the South China Sea, raising the ire of countries including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, who also lay claim to the area.

“We will” protest if the reports turn out to be true, Mr Locsin said on Twitter. “I however preferred engaging them openly on the floor of the UN General Assembly.”

He said his department is awaiting National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon’s assessment, as the government cannot rely on media accounts.

Mr Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo last week said the Philippines should be “thankful” to China, saying a rescue centre can help everybody.

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Doubts raised over claims Indonesian couple was behind Philippine church bombings

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Analysts have raised doubts over claims made by a senior Philippine government official that an Indonesian couple was behind the church bombings in the southern Philippines, citing a lack of evidence.

Mr Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said on Saturday (Feb 2) that Manila was apparently still in the dark over the identity of the bombing perpetrators.

“There’s no evidence! Different officials are saying different things – Malaysians, Yemenis, Indonesians. They actually have no clue,” Mr Jones told The Jakarta Post in a text message on Saturday.

Philippine Interior Minister Eduardo Manahan Ano had earlier said that based on witness accounts and information from undisclosed sources, he was convinced that Indonesian citizens committed suicide bombings at a Roman Catholic church on Jan 27 in Jolo. The town of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, has long been plagued by separatism led by Islamist groups.

“They are Indonesians,” Mr Ano, a former military chief, told CNN Philippines, as reported by AFP. “I am certain that they are Indonesians.”

He also claimed that other foreign terrorists were still operating in the Philippines, suggesting they could be either Yemeni or Egyptian.

Political analyst Fitriani of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concurred withMr  Jones, saying that without evidence it was too early to conclude that Indonesians were involved in the bombings.

However, Ms Fitriani, who like most Indonesians go by one name, did not rule out the possibility of Indonesian militants being involved in the attacks, given the geographical proximity between the two countries. She added that the border between Indonesia and the Philippines also lies in the sea, making it hard for the authorities to monitor.

During the armed conflict between the Islamic State-linked Maute group and Philippine security forces in Marawi two years ago, a number of Indonesian militants were believed to have gone to the Philippine city to join the fight alongside the militants.

SHARING INTELLIGENCE

At the time, calls for a holy war in the Philippines circulated on social media accounts linked to Indonesian militant groups such as Jemaah Ansharu Daulah, which was said to have sent dozens of its members there.

Ms Fitriani said Indonesia would have to share intelligence information with Manila following allegations that its citizens carried out a deadly terror act in a foreign country. “Indonesia will usually share anything needed,” she said.

The bombings, she said, should serve as a wake-up call for South-east Asian countries to strengthen their cooperation in the war on terror, particularly in terms of intelligence sharing.

Indonesia has initiated intelligence partnership Our Eyes, which was endorsed by Asean member states last year. “It is needed more than ever. Terrorism is an enemy to all countries,” she said, adding that the Jolo attacks were feared to awaken sleeping terrorist cells in Indonesia and other neighbouring countries.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Saturday said she was still seeking confirmation on the identity of the bombing perpetrators.

She said Jakarta had talked to the Philippine authorities and was told that the identity of the perpetrators had not yet been determined.

“Based on information we gathered this morning, the perpetrators have yet to be confirmed because the investigation and identification process are still ongoing,” she said in a video statement recorded in Padang, West Sumatra.

She also said that Jakarta had yet to decide what to do next, as it was currently focusing on following the investigation process.

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Unclaimed body parts boost suicide theory in Philippine bombings

MANILA (DPA) – Unclaimed mangled body parts from twin bombings at a cathedral in the Philippines’ conflict-wracked south have boosted a theory that suicide bombers were behind the attack, the military said on Friday (Feb 1).

The death toll in the bombings at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo town in Sulu province, 1,000km south of Manila, has risen to 22, after a 68-year-old woman died in hospital.

More than 100 people were also wounded in the twin blasts on Jan 27, which the authorities said were looking more likely to have been carried out by suicide bombers, after two sets of body parts recovered from the site remained unclaimed.

The body parts included feet, arms, torso and heads, said Colonel Noel Detoyato, a military spokesman.

“The pieces of body parts that are unclaimed and strewn all over the entrance as far as 50m away from the entrance supports the theory of a suicide bomber,” he said.

The first bombing occurred inside the cathedral during mass, while the second explosion went off at the entrance as people fled and troops rushed in to respond to the initial blast.

A woman was believed to have brought one of the bombs inside the church, and a man carried the second explosive device outside.

Col Detoyato said the woman could have joined her partner outside after leaving the bomb inside the cathedral, just minutes before the second explosive device went off.

“I believe that’s what happened, but we can only surmise,” he said.

“Based on the body parts recovered, they are too close to the explosive that they were torn into pieces.”

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Philippine's Duterte seeks constitutional change

Critics of the move to change the 1987 Constitution and switch to federalism say it is a smokescreen to prolong his tenure.

    The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, wants to change the Constitution and switch to a new form of government.

    He says the move would see regions get more power and help alleviate poverty.

    But critics say it is a smokescreen to prolong his tenure.

    Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan reports from Manila.

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    Duterte orders airstrikes in Philippine town after deadly blasts

    MANILA (BLOOMBERG) – The Philippine military launched an airstrike against a local terrorist group suspected to be behind the deadly attack on a Catholic Church in the southern island of Mindanao on Sunday (Jan 28).

    Authorities have intensified operations against a splinter group from the Abu Sayyaf in the southern province of Sulu, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday, including an airstrike in parts of Jolo town on Tuesday (Jan 29).

    At least 21 people were killed and more than a hundred injured in two explosions at a Catholic Church in Sulu on on Jan 27.

    President Rodrigo Duterte’s “directive is to crush the Abu Sayyaf,” Lorenzana said. The military has been receiving reports of a possible terrorist attack in the province as early as August last year, he said.

    Investigators are still looking at other suspects in the attack, including a Yemeni couple who may have carried out suicide bombings at the Church, according to the defense chief.

    On Wednesday (Jan 30), two people died and four others injured when a grenade exploded in a mosque in Zamboanga City, the second explosion in the southern Mindanao island in four days.

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    Need for speed: Carts on rails help Manila's commuters dodge gridlock

    (This story has been refiled to fix editing credit)

    By Ronn Bautista

    MANILA (Reuters) – Thousands of commuters flock to Manila’s railway tracks every day, but rather than boarding the trains, they climb on to wooden carts pushed along the tracks, to avoid the Philippine capital’s infamous traffic gridlock.

    The trolleys, as the carts are known, most of them fitted with colorful umbrellas for shade from the sun, can seat up to 10 people each, who pay as little as 20 U.S. cents per ride, cheaper than most train rides.

    “I do this because it gives us money that’s easy to earn,” said Reynaldo Diaz, 40, who is one of more than 100 operators, also known as “trolley boys”, who push the carts along the 28-km (17-mile) track, most wearing flimsy flip-flops on their feet.

    “It’s better than stealing from others,” said Diaz, adding that he earned around $10 a day, just enough for his family to get by. A trolley boy since he was 17, he lives in a makeshift shelter beside the track with his two sons.

    Diaz said the trolley boys were just “borrowing” the track from the Philippine National Railways, but the state-owned train company has moved to halt the trolley service after the media drew attention to its dangers recently.

    The risk arises because those pushing and riding the trolleys have to watch out for the trains to avoid collisions.

    “Of course we get scared of the trains,” said Jun Albeza, 32, who has been a trolley boy for four years after he was laid off from plumbing and construction jobs.

    “That’s why, whenever we’re pushing these trolleys, we always look back, so we can see if there’s a train coming. Those in front of us will give us a heads-up too.”

    When a train approaches, the trolley boys quickly grab the lightweight carts off the track and jump out of the way along with their riders.

    Still, there have been no fatal accidents since the makeshift service started decades ago, some of the trolley boys told Reuters.  

    A Manila police officer confirmed that records showed no casualties related to the trolley boys.

    “It is really dangerous and should not be allowed, But we understand that it’s their livelihood,” said the officer, Bryan Silvan.

    “They’re like mushrooms that just popped up along the tracks and they even have their own association.”

    When the Philippine National Railways began operation in the 1960s, its network of more than 100 stations extended to provinces outside Manila.

    But neglect and natural disasters have since caused it to cut back operations by two-thirds, even as the capital’s population has ballooned to about 13 million.

    For office workers and students, the minutes shaved off daily commutes justify the risks of trolley rides.

    “The distance to our workplaces is actually shorter through this route,” said one office worker, Charlette Magtrayo.

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