Leaders of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) hit the perjury charge filed against Rev. Wilfredo Ruazol and nine other human rights defenders in their failed attempt to seek protection from the court against state-sponsored harassment.
“The South Central Luzon Bishops Conference (SCLBC) condemn this effort to weaponize the courts with falsehoods, trumped-up charges and technicalities,” said Bishop Rowel Arevalo of Laguna, also the chairperson of the SCLBC. “We know Rev. Ruazol for his dedication to the biblical mandate of upholding human dignity. We also believe that the legitimate dissent of human rights defenders must not be met with persecution.”
Rev. Ruazol was charged together with fellow Karapatan officers Elisa Tita Lubi, Cristina Palabay, Edita Burgos, Gabriela Krista Dalena, Roneo Clamor and Jose Mari Callueng. Also charged were Gabriela officers Joan May Salvador and Gertrudes Libang, and Sister Emma Cupin of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP). The case was dismissed against Karapatan’s Reylan Vergara for lack of jurisdiction.
With this new development, they rejoin 80-year-old nun Sister Elenita Belardo, RMP’s former national coordinator, in the perjury charge pending before the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 37.
“The government’s filing of a criminal case against Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP is a demonstration of vile attacks against rights defenders and their organizations,” said Romblon and Mindoros Bishop Ronelio Fabriquier. He is also the current chairperson of the board of Ramento Project for Rights Defenders (RPRD), a faith-based program of the IFI offering services to rights defenders, to which Rev. Ruazol belongs.
“The reopening of the case is evidently a retaliatory attack representing the goverment policy of criminalizing human rights defense. This aims to dilute the integrity and legitimacy of their works in obtaining justice for the victims of human righrs violations,” he added. “It is inherent to Rev. Ruazol being a man of God to speak prophetically for the poor, deprived and oppressed in society.”
The perjury charges stem from the groups’ filing of petitions for a writ of amparo and habeas data at the Supreme Court (SC) on May 6, 2019, citing incidents of threats, red-tagging and attacks against members and officers. The two measures would protect the organizations against further surveillance, attacks and red-tagging, among others.
Respondents included National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., also concurrent vice chairperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.
The SC in an en banc session on May 24 issued a writ of amparo and habeas data in favor of the petitioners, and then directed the Court of Appeals to hear the petition on June 18. In a decision signed by CA Associate Justice Mario Lopez on June 28, the appellate court ruled that there was no substantial evidence to establish the petitioners’ allegations.
On July 2, Esperon filed a perjury case against the 12 petitioners claiming they lied under oath when they declared that RMP was a duly registered non-stock, non-profit organization with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He claimed their registration was revoked in 2003.
“It backfired on them. You can go to the SEC right now but you won’t find their registration. It was back in 2003 they last registered; it’s been expired for 16 years. But they are still saying they are registered and collecting donations from everywhere to fund the activities of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army,” Esperon said in Filipino. All the other organizations involved in the case had been baselessly red-tagged previously. RMP, on its end, had constantly filed requirements to the SEC year on year after reregistering in 2009.
Respondents denied perjuring the court, citing that Esperon’s case was “a clear reprisal on the human rights defenders’ efforts to seek legal protection for the threats, harassment and other human rights violations committed against them by President Duterte, Esperon and several other government officials.”
Of the 12, a resolution signed by Quezon City Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Nilo Peñaflor on Nov. 8 noted that Belardo was to be charged. Charges against all other respondents were dismissed. The nun posted bail in December and pleaded not guilty on Feb. 20.
On Feb. 26, Esperon announced he had pursued a motion for reconsideration to chase after the 11 others. City Prosecutor Vimar Barcellano issued last Feb. 24 the indictment that revived the perjury charges against 10 and dropped one. The resolution effectively modified the decision signed in November.
On March 3, 2020, eight individuals posted an P18,000-bail. Palabay and Cupin were outside Metro Manila but plan to post bail as soon as possible.
“It is really apparent that this is a vindictive government. This is how they react to a group of people asking protection from the court because of the very threats the state has posed,” said Rev. Jonash Joyohoy, executive director of RPRD. “That three are church people also demonstrates that institutions and individuals driven by their faith to advocate human dignity and rights for the underprivileged will not be spared.”
“This is a hallmark case in that, if this case is lost, they might come for all the other groups which the government has previously red-tagged and drag them to the courts,” he added. “The case against Rev. Ruazol and the others truly signifies that the state is willing to stifle human rights defenders and to close down civic and democratic spaces. It is chilling.”
“We bishops in SCL believe that evil will never prevail against good,” said Bishop Arevalo. “We also believe that all forms of oppression and disrespect that the government is using against God’s workers will have an end.”