UN adviser on indigenous rights fears for her life after being branded 'terrorist' by Duterte

Ms Vicky Tauli-Corpuz was among 600 people accused of terrorism over their alleged links to Maoist rebels.
Ms Vicky Tauli-Corpuz was among 600 people accused of terrorism over their alleged links to Maoist rebels.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Ms Vicky Tauli-Corpuz has spent four decades campaigning for indigenous people in her native Philippines, but never feared for her life.

That changed last month when she was branded a "terrorist" by President Rodrigo Duterte's government.

The special adviser to the UN on indigenous rights since 2014 was among 600 people accused of terrorism over their alleged links to Maoist rebels in a government document filed in a Manila court in February.

The activist, who had condemned alleged rights abuses in the southern Mindanao region, where the state is battling an Islamic insurgency and leftist guerrillas, denies the allegations and says she feels like a marked woman.

"This is like a target list basically," the slightly built, bespectacled 65-year-old from the Kankanaey Igorot ethnic group said in an interview at UN cultural body Unesco in Paris.

While waiting to see if the state brings charges, she said she has decided to stay out of the Philippines on the advice of her lawyers.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz is one of several left-wing activists accused by Mr Duterte's government of links to the Maoist rebels with whom he broke off talks last year after initially saying he would "walk the extra mile" for peace.

Mr Duterte blamed the rebels, whose insurgency has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives since 1969, for ongoing attacks on the security forces.

In its court petition, the justice department asked for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), to be declared "terrorist organisations".

Attached to the submission, seen by AFP, were 600 names of suspected rebels, including Ms Tauli-Corpuz and two other prominent indigenous leaders - Ms Joan Carling and Mr Jose Molintas - who have previously advised the United Nations.

The targeting of the trio came after Mr Duterte last year accused indigenous Lumad schools of grooming children to become insurgents and threatened to bomb them.

Reacting to the case, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said it was "unacceptable for a special rapporteur acting on behalf of the international community, whose expertise is sought by the (UN) Human Rights Council, to be treated in this way".

New York-based Human Rights Watch said those on the "virtual government hit list" were "at grave risk".

Ms Tauli-Corpuz, who began campaigning for indigenous rights in her native Cordillera region during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, compared the government list to the lists of suspects used to prosecute Mr Duterte's deadly anti-drugs war.

Philippine police say they have killed more than 4,000 drug suspects who resisted arrest, but rights groups estimate there have been more than three times that, including people murdered by vigilante groups.

"The President has his police and his death squads, who can easily kill people whom they accuse of being terrorists," Ms Tauli-Corpuz said.

The activist who helped draft the seminal 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples said she believed she was targeted over her condemnation in December of alleged rights abuses in the southern region of Mindanao, where Mr Duterte is battling pro-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gunmen.

"They (indigenous people) are being displaced, they are being killed, their lands are being taken over, so I made a statement which came out in the newspapers and the government immediately came out and said I was embarrassing the government internationally," she said.

Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano has insisted there is evidence linking Ms Tauli-Corpuz to the rebels and said she and others on the list "should see this as an opportunity to clear their names".

Mr Duterte, who enjoys wide popularity despite his rights record, has repeatedly lashed out at his domestic and foreign critics.

Last week, he announced he was pulling the Philippines out of the International Criminal Court, which is examining his crackdown on drugs.

He also recently vowed not to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Ms Agnes Callamard.

"You're investigating us, fact finding? Well sorry, do not **** with me," he said, in remarks aimed at Ms Callamard.