By RITCHE T. SALGADO
CEBU CITY – Yet another organization helping the poor is being accused of terrorist links.
Based in Cebu, the Community Empowerment Resource Network, Inc. (CERNET) is a registered non-government organization that supports people’s organizations in the Visayas region, particularly on food security. On August 13, CERNET received a subpoena from the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleging that 27 individuals who are former council members, board members, staff, and even a member of the network’s partner people organization are supporting the armed revolution.
Brig. Gen Joey Escanillas, commanding officer of the 302nd Infantry Brigade, in his complaint accused members and former members of CERNET of violating Republic Act No. 10168 (Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012).
In a press conference, Escanillas claimed that CERNET is operating a 60-40 scheme wherein 60 percent goes to the communist movement while 40 percent goes to the intended beneficiary.
“They have mastered this form of acquiring funds legally but it goes to something illegal.”
He said that in 2018, CERNET was able to raise “more than 333 million pesos from foreign funding agencies”. He added that “around 200 million [were given to] the communist terror group.” These estimates, he said, is based on publicly available data gathered by an “independent individual” who was said to be curious about CERNET.
Although he admitted that CERNET’s funding is subject to audit, Escanillas still insisted that a “large portion” goes to the financing of a terrorist group. “This case serves as a stern warning to those who aid, collaborate with, and conspire with this terror group.”
Harassment based on lies
In a statement read by CERNET Executive Director Justine Villarante, CERNET stressed that the charges are meant to harass the organization engaged in helping poor farmers, fisherfolks, and urban poor communities in the Visayas region through livelihood and empowerment initiatives since its founding in 2001.
“(The accusation) is grounded on the lies and baseless accusations of their primary witness, Bernabe Nieves, a former staff of CERNET who was terminated due to grave misconduct and violation of CERNET Code of Ethics,” the statement read.
“We express our dismay as this only proves that the Philippine government targets and persecutes Civil Society Organizations (CSO) in the country, particularly those advocating collective action and development initiatives by weaponizing Philippine laws derived from the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force,” it continues, stressing that this action “endangers the lives of development organizations and workers as they strive [to help achieve the] UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”
Helping the poor
Carmelita Alcontin of the Kapunungan sa Makugihong Mag-uuma sa Bato, Toledo City (KMMB) said that since CERNET arrived in their community in Bato, Toledo City to survey the place, they have not been hesitant in giving out help to the community through projects. “They are giving us services which the government should be providing to poor farmers. CERNET was the one who responded to our needs,” she said, adding that if CERNET did not provide the projects they would continue to suffer from extreme poverty.
Giovanni Gabuli, president of Pundok Sagop Kalikupan, a beneficiary of CERNET, said that it is difficult for an ordinary fisherman to improve their economic status with just the means available to them. He said that they were grateful when CERNET offered their services. He said that CERNET helped establish the fishpond and communal garden, as well as conducted training in soap making.
In a statement, AMP-Action Network Human Rights-Philippines found the charges against CERNET to be “unsubstantiated, seemingly designed to tarnish [its] reputation and to hinder its operations.” A network of German church-based and human rights organizations, AMP reports the Philippine human rights situation in Germany and the European Union. Its member organizations include Amnesty International Germany, Brot für die Welt, International Peace Observers Network (IPON), Misereor, Missio Munich, philippinennbüro e.V. and the United Evangelical Mission.
History of harassments
For more than two decades, CERNET and its network members have been experiencing various forms of harassment and intimidation.
In 2008, its executive director and administrative officer were falsely implicated in a case filed by the military. The case was dismissed the following year as baseless and in 2011 they filed countercharges. Ten years later (2018), CERNET suffered from continuous attacks and vilification, to the point of being included in the presentation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in a 2019 congressional hearing. In 2020, a member of its network, Elena Tijamo, was abducted from her home in Bantayan Island only to be found in a funeral parlor in Metro Manila the following year. How she arrived in Manila remained a mystery.
In January this year, its staff April Dyan Gumanao was abducted by suspected members of the Philippine Army together with her partner, also a development worker. They were later surfaced in a resort in Northern Cebu.
Villarante stressed that CERNET complies with the stringent financial reporting of their funders and their financial records passed an extensive third party audit.
For his part, Dennis Abarientos of Karapatan Central Visayas said that they are confident that the case would not stand in court.
On September 28, the respondents submitted their counter-affidavits and attended the preliminary investigation.
Meanwhile, small farmers, fisherolks, and women from the urban poor, are worried about their future as they depend on CERNET’s assistance.
“If CERNET would stop, it is like putting an end to our organization,” said Virgie Garcia who belongs to a women farmer’s group based in Aloguinsan, Cebu. “The threat and attacks against CERNET is an attack on our projects, and initiatives that help in our effort to attain food security, as well as with our livelihood and attacks against our families.” (DAA)