Church groups demand dropping of raps against human rights defenders, church leaders

Several church groups call for the dismissal of the criminal charges filed against members of the human rights organization Karapatan, progressive women’s group Gabriela, and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines’ (RMP), which includes RMP Sr. Elenita Belardo and Sr. Emma Cupin, and Iglesia Filipina Independiente’s (IFI) Fr. Wilfredo Ruazol.

The 3 faith-based human rights defenders are among the 12 respondents to a perjury case filed by National Security Adviser (NSA) and vice chairperson of the National Task Force in Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) General Hermogenes Esperon in July 2019.

Esperon submitted his complaint-affidavit after the groups’ petitions for protection against government threats and harassment were denied merit by the Court of Appeals.

Esperon, who was one of the respondents in the pleas for writ of amparo and habeas data filed by the groups, accused RMP of misrepresentation itself as a duly registered non-stock, non-profit corporation with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Sr. Belardo refuted Esperon’s claim saying RMP is a duly pregistered organization and was never remissed with SEC’s reportorial requirements.

“Gen. Esperon’s claim is a blatant lie. We are in possession of the receiving copies of the documents we have filed to SEC,” Sr. Belardo said.

The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), standing as RMP’s counsel, said that Esperon’s perjury charges is baseless. It challenged the general to instead answer whether he have been committing acts that threaten the right to life, liberty and security of human rights defenders, as mentioned in the groups’ complaints.

Bishop Rowel Arevalo, Chairperson of the IFI South Central Luzon Bishops Conference, expressed apprehension that the charges may serve as a prelude to intensified state-sponsored attacks against human rights defenders through the judicial system.

“The complaint is a thinly veiled state-sponsored political attack against human rights defenders. At the same time, it is also an attack against the integrity of the justice system, which the masterminds of the complaints intend to deliberately subvert by honing the judiciary into a tool of state reprisal,” Bishop Arevalo said.

“To preserve the integrity of the judicial system, the court must decide to dismiss the charges filed by the government against Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP,” the Bishop added.

Ramento Project for Rights Defenders (RPRD) executive director Fr. Jonash Joyohoy said that the perjury charges is evidently a government retaliatory attack to the joint petition of Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP for asking the court for legal protection against government harassment and threats.

“That Gen. Esperon accused these organizations as part of the communist legal fronts in the country only means the case is intended to intimidate and harass those who stand up for the defense of human rights,” Fr. Joyohoy said.

In a statement on August 15, RMP bewailed the attacks against human rights defenders from the civil society and church sector under President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.

“Rural poor advocates are not spared from these attacks. Lawyers, health workers, journalists, Church workers and other development workers are being red-tagged, threatened, placed under surveillance, and even taken to court for trumped-up and malicious charges,” the statement read.

RMP national officers demanded for the outright dismissal of the charges, calling the perjury charges a preposterous accusation against its members Sr. Bellardo and Sr. Cupin

The Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF), an organization of Catholic and Protestant Bishops, condemned what it believes to be the state’s tampering of law enforcement structures and the legal system to intimidate and persecute church people.

“This has become the new normal under President Duterte’s government, as serious (criminal) charges and the threat of jail is used as intimidation,” read the statement signed by EBF co-chairpersons Bishop Rex Reyes and Bishop Deogracias Iniguez dated August 1.

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) has called for the dismissal of the perjury case against Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP and for the court to grant a review of their petition for the writs of amparo and habeas data.

Esperon’s party and the group of Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP will be forwarding their Memorandum before the court on October 14. Decision is expected to be published within 60 days after the submission of the documents.

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