A Catholic human rights activist has been shot dead in the Philippines this week, in what colleagues see as an escalation of the Duterte government’s crackdown on dissent.
Zara Alvarez, a volunteer for the Church-Workers Solidarity group in San Carlos Diocese, was gunned down in Bacolod City, located in the west of the Philippines. Alvarez had reportedly been receiving death threats for over a year, related to her work with poor farmers in the region. Alvarez, aged 39, was a long-time advocate for farmers rights in a country where power and land is concentrated in the hands of a few politically influential families. In recent years, she had been prominent in protesting mistreatment of farmers by the police and military, who have been empowered by Duterte under the auspices of fighting terrorism and the drug trade. Alvarez was also an experienced paralegal, helping to bring evidence of human rights abuses in the Philippines to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2019.
Her death, on the 17 August, came just a week after the murder of the high-profile trade union and agrarian reform activist Randall Echanis on 10 August. Echanis helped found Karapatan, a human rights group Alvarez also belonged to. According to Karapatan, Alvarez was the 13th member of the organisation killed since Duterte came to power. Her death comes as the latest murder in what local activists claim is a trend in the impoverished rural areas of the Philippines. Alvarez had previously claimed over 87 farmers and activists had been murdered in her area alone.
The targeting of activists like Alvarez by the state – in 2018 the department of justice briefly named her as a “terrorist” – is considered by activists and Church leaders to have contributed heavily to her death.
Gerardo Alminaza, Bishop of San Carlos, decried the spate of killings, which, he said, are often left “unsolved” by the police, and called them “a clear mark of the shameless immorality of the Philippines”. The recent killings come just weeks after President Duterte introduced controversial legislation allowing police to arrest and detain suspects without a warrant.
Bishop Alminaza praised Alvarez’s commitment to and work with the poor of that country, which he said was "worthy of emulation". One campaigning group, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, laid the blame for the killing at the feet of the Duterte administration and called for “international condemnation” of his regime.