Rights group accuses Aquino gov’t of violating Dutch activist’s right to free expression

By Carlos Conde

Thomas van Beersum, a 20-year-old Dutch citizen, was about to board his flight Tuesday (August 6) morning back to the Netherlands when the Philippine Bureau of Immigration stopped him and detained him for the next 30 hours at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. Officially, his crime was overstaying his visa, a charge Beersum disputes.

Immigration officials, however, were emphatic about why he was detained: Beersum had joined an anti-government rally on July 23, 2013, near the Philippine Congress where President Benigno Aquino III delivered his State of the Nation address.

Bureau of Immigration Officer-in-Charge Siegfred Mison told the media Beersum had violated visa rules because he joined the protest. Foreign visitors, Mison said, should not join such protests. Apart from detaining Beersum, the immigration bureau also declared him an “undesirable alien,” put him on an “alert list order,” and blacklisted him, thus barring any future visits to the country of his fiancée.

That Beersum was arrested when he was already on his way out suggests this was nothing but harassment. The government’s behavior violates the guarantees of free expression and peaceful assembly to which foreign visitors as well as Philippine citizens are entitled under international law. It undermines Aquino’s claims that his administration respects human rights and values civil liberties.

While the administration seems to have time to chase foreigners protesting rights violations, it has fallen far short of its rhetoric to end impunity for serious abuses, an important topic that Aquino failed to mention in his State of the Nation address.

The Philippine government should revoke the blacklisting of Beersum. It should reject the immigration chief’s statement warning foreigners from joining in peaceful protest actions. Instead of harassing those who decry the continued violations of human rights, Aquino should welcome them.

Carlos Conde wrote this position paper for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, where he works as a researcher for the Asia Division.

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