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Rights groups say Philippines deadliest country in Asia for land activists

Police officers patrol a street in Tondo, Manila, the Philippines, July 2, 2018. (Photo by Reuters)

Rights groups say the Philippines was the deadliest country in Asia for land and environmental activists in 2017, amid accusations that the government failed to provide security for campaigners.

The Philippines-based rights group Karapatan reported on Wednesday that at least 63 land and environmental activists were killed last year, more than double the figure the previous year.

"There is a climate of impunity and a total lack of access to justice for victims," said Karapatan's Secretary-General Christina Palabay, adding that the actual number of victims may be "even higher."

The UK-based advocacy group Global Witness said on Tuesday that 48 land and environmental activists were murdered in the Philippines in 2017. The Philippines was ranked the second most dangerous country for activists in the group’s survey of 22 countries. Brazil, with 57 murders, was ranked the deadliest country.

Global Witness blamed the soaring number of killings in the Philippines on "a president who is brazenly anti-human rights, the militarization of communities, and the failure of government bodies to provide protection for at-risk activists."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his State of the Nation address at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, Metro Manila, the Philippines, July 23, 2018. (Photo by Reuters)

Activists say the number of murders has gone up amid a government crackdown on rural communities.

According to Global Witness, nearly half of the killings were linked to fights against large agricultural businesses, as farmers and indigenous people were forced from their land to make way for plantations of banana and coffee.

"The priority is business; this administration does not care about people," said Joan Carling, an adviser to the United Nations on indigenous rights.

"There is not even an acknowledgement by the government of the increasingly dangerous climate for defenders. We fear the situation will only get worse," said Carling, who is living outside the Philippines because of a petition that the government submitted to a Manila court which seeks to designate her along with more than 600 others, including activists and a UN special rapporteur, as "terrorists." Human Rights Watch called the petition "a virtual hit list."

Activists have urged the lifting of martial law in the island of Mindanao, which accounted for more than two-thirds of the murders in 2017.

They have also called for an investigation into the military personnel and police charged with the homicides.

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