Court to decide on the perjury case against human rights defenders

Photo by Arneth Asiddao/ Bulatlat

By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – A local court in Quezon City is set to decide on the perjury case filed against 10 human rights defenders on Monday, Jan. 9.

The perjury charges were filed by former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. in July 2019. Human rights group Karapatan asserted that the filing of the case against their members is a reprisal after they have filed various complaints against Esperon, other members of the executive department and officers of the military.

Read: Right groups insist Esperon’s perjury claims baseless, form of harassment

Those who were charged were: Karapatan Council members Cristina Palabay, Elisa Lubi, Roneo Clamor, Edita Burgos, Reylan Vergara, Rev. Wilfredo Ruazol, Kiri Dalena and Jose Mari Callueng; Gabriela’s human rights coordinator, Gertrudes Libang; Gabriela’s chairperson and former secretary general, Joan May Salvador; Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) National Coordinator Sr. Elenita Belardo; and RMP Northern Mindanao Region Coordinator Sr. Emma Cupin.

Several local and international civil society organizations have expressed their support for Karapatan and other human rights defenders.

In December last year, at least 64 organizations and three individuals released a statement expressing their solidarity with the Filipino human rights defenders.

In the statement, they called on the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration to “distance himself from the previous administration, and firmly commit to respecting the right to defend human rights.”

“President Marcos Jr. should cease the threats and attacks against rights defenders and ensure the protection of their rights, including the rights to life, due process, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly,” the statement read.

They also urged authorities to put an immediate end to the judicial harassment against the 10 human rights defenders.

“Similarly, we call on the authorities to rescind the Anti-Terrorism Act and adopt the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill,” it added.

Among the international non-government organizations who signed the statement include the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN), Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Civicus World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, Ibon International, International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) among others.

Read: Senators, int’l groups support rights defenders facing perjury raps
Read: UN expert, international groups demand junking of charges vs Karapatan, 2 other groups

What went before

Due to the incessant attacks against human rights defenders and activists under President Rodrigo Duterte, Karapatan and RMP filed complaints at the Commission on Human Rights on March 13, 2019. Karapatan also participated in CHR’s public inquiry on the situation of human rights defenders held on Sept. 9 to 12, 2019.

One of CHR’s recommendations in its report released in 2020 is for the executive department to “desist from red-tagging and labelling human rights defenders as terrorists or enemies of the State, and other similar acts, based solely on the fact that such individuals and organizations are human rights defenders.”

They also urged the executive to acknowledge the legitimacy of human rights defenders’ work and actively protect and promote the “right to defend rights.”

Read: Rights defenders decry red tagging as form of rights violation

On May 6, 2019, Karapatan, RMP and Gabriela filed a petition for the writ of amparo and writ of habeas data before the Supreme Court. It was granted on May 30, 2019 and ordered the Court of Appeals (CA) to hear the petition. But on June 28 of the same year, the CA dismissed the petition. They then filed a petition for review of the CA decision with the high court in July 2019.

Meanwhile, activists and human rights defenders continue to be targeted.

Ryan Hubilla of Karapatan-Sorsogon and Zara Alvarez of Karapatan-Negros, who were supposed to testify during the hearings for the petition, were killed in June 2019 and August 2020 respectively.

After Alvarez’s killing, Karapatan filed a manifestation urging the Supreme Court to act on the petition for review on Sept 1, 2020. The high court has not issued a decision as of this writing.

On July 2, 2019, Espeson filed a perjury complaint with the Quezon City Office of the City Prosecutor Prosecutor (QC OCP) against the 10 human rights defenders.

The respondents to the case believe that the case filed by Esperon is a retaliation.

Esperon alleged that the said respondents committed perjury when they stated in their Petition that the RMP is “duly registered as a non-stock, non-profit corporation under Philippine laws.” According to him, “the SEC already revoked the Certificate of Registration of RMP on August 20, 2003 for its failure to submit the required General Information Sheets and Financial Statements from 1997 to 2003.”

During the preliminary investigation, RMP’s Belardo asserted that the SEC has approved its re-application. They also presented proof such as the RMP’s submission of General Information Sheet and Audited Financial Statement that they said the SEC continued to receive in the past years.

They also argued that “as the Petition is merely a joinder of their causes of action, each of the petitioner verified only such allegations as were personally known and pertaining to them.”

“They further argued that notwithstanding this, there was no bad faith on the part of the RMP and that the corporate status of a petitioner organization is immaterial in a proceeding for amparo and habeas data,” the statement read.

Esperon’s complaint was dismissed by the QC OCP on Nov. 8, 2019. However, Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Nilo A. Peñaflor has found probable cause to charge Belardo and Cupin with perjury.

Esperon filed a motion for reconsideration on Dec. 17, 2019.

On Feb. 24, 2020, City Prosecutor Vimar Barcellano granted Esperon’s motion for reconsideration and found probable cause to indict the human rights defenders. Karapatan said there are three separate information for perjury that were filed against them with the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139. Warrants of arrests were issued against them. Each were able to post bail worth P20,000 ($360) except for Palabay who was then in Geneva, Switzerland, participating in the United Nations Human Rights Council session.

Palabay was able to post bail upon arrival from Geneva in April 2020. On July 2020, two men who disguised as couriers attempted to serve a warrant of arrest against Palabay.

Read: Rights defenders decry revival of fabricated perjury charges
Read: Right defender frustrates arrest

The court has heard the perjury case since 2020 until 2022 where the human rights defenders gave their testimonies in court. The court is set to decide on the case on Jan. 10.

While the groups face what they call as judicial harassment, they continued to receive messages of solidarity from other groups here and abroad.

In a previous statement, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor called on authorities to “protect human rights defenders, instead of pursuing countersuits against them for seeking legal protection from threats.” (RTS, RVO)  (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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