Civil societies sound alarm over gov’t use of terror financing charges to paralyze their services

Photo by Dominic Gutoman

By DOMINIC GUTOMAN
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Freezing bank accounts has become an alarming concern for civil societies in the Philippines, particularly those that are providing services at the grassroots level.

“We are not enemies of the state. In fact, we have partnered with them in delivering social services to the people. They should acknowledge that what we do are community development and nation-building,” said Isidro Genol Jr. of Paghida-et sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG).

PDG is an NGO based in the 5th and 6th Districts of Negros Occidental. They are a member of the Municipal Development Planning Council and are known for facilitating the land ownership of farmers through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). In their latest data, they have assisted 4,400 farmers to access their lands, which equates to more than 2,000 hectares.

However, two of their staff are facing charges related to the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012 (TFPSA) or RA No. 10168. They received their subpoena on April 29. Their group has also been subjected to relentless red-tagging.

“The red-tagging does not only affect the PDG, even our partners from peoples’ organizations are victimized. Farmers and leaders who have established communal farms are also being red-tagged. These halt the development of community management and collective farming,” said Genol.

Not enemies of the state

Genol said that as far as they are concerned, they have been “a close partner of the government in (their) poverty alleviation program” in the 36 years of their existence.

“Beyond that, we also spearheaded programs in livelihood, environmental protection and rehabilitation. We even partnered with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in reforesting a hundred hectares of forest land in the municipality,” he said.

In 2018, PDG’s executive director and known human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos was gunned down by unidentified men. Up until now, the perpetrators are still at large and there is no development on the case.

Read: Rights lawyer gunned down in Negros
Read: No justice a year after death of rights lawyer

Another non-government agency, the Leyte Center for Development Enterprise, Inc (LCDE), a disaster response NGO, filed a petition on May 17 to challenge the constitutionality of the TFPSA. This is in response to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) charged them with similar terrorism financing violations under TFPSA.

AMLC ordered the freezing not only of LCDE’s bank accounts but also those belonging to their volunteer workers Jazmin Jerusalem, Chadwick Suazo, Reniel Sanica, Fenna Joyce Moscare, and Meleda Fune, as well as “other private persons and business establishments with whom LCDE made official business transactions.” It has also been tracked that the local businesses with whom LCDE transacted have been frozen.

“The AMLC seems to be the judge, jury, and executioner in issuing targeted financial sanctions. How can the principle of effective judicial protection be observed when vast powers are concentrated in one executive body or two and we have no idea what happens behind their closed doors?” said Atty. Alberto Hidalgo, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers – Eastern Visayas (NUPL-EV), who assisted in the filing of LCDE.

They also particularly question Section 11 of TFPSA that states: “The AMLC, either upon its own initiative or at the request of the ATC, is hereby authorized to issue an ex parte order to freeze without delay: (a) property or funds that are in any way related to financing of terrorism or acts of terrorism; or (b) property or funds of any person, group of persons, terrorist organization, or association, in relation to whom there is probable cause to believe that they are committing or attempting or conspiring to commit, or participating in or facilitating the commission of financing of terrorism or acts of terrorism as defined herein.”

NUPL-EV said that the asset freezing is “arbitrary, whimsical, and despotic” as it can freeze the assets without providing sufficient standards and safeguards in the determination of such terms as “related accounts” or properties.

“The fact that the ATA provides a broad definition of terrorism—so wide it casts a wide net to cover legitimate acts like humanitarian activities and to confuse armed conflict with terrorist acts—makes the problem even worse,” Atty. Hidalgo said.

Finding it hard to access their official and individual accounts, LCDE and its staff have to temporarily cease their operations.

Braving the fear-mongering

Bulatlat has been reporting the growing number of NGOs who are charged with TFPSA. In Cebu, an NGO facing a similar difficulty in helping their clients is the Community Empowerment Resource Network (CERNET). It is a registered NGO engaged in helping poor farmers, fisherfolks, and urban poor communities in the Visayas region through livelihood and empowerment initiatives since its founding in 2001.

On August 13, 2023, 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. Gen. Joey Escanillas, commanding officer of the 302nd Infantry Brigade, accused them of violating the TFPSA.

Read: Military accuses Cebu-based NGO of terrorist links

The Department of Justice (DOJ), through Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla, issued a warning that “those who finance terrorist organizations will face extreme consequences as harsh as those met by the terrorists themselves” after filing a charge against CERNET.

CERNET is supposed to be part of the press conference but they are encountering safety and security issues. Instead, the organizations stood against the DOJ’s recent warning, stating that their development work is far from terrorism.

Dr. Susan Balingit, Executive Director of Citizens Disaster Response Center (CDRC), said that the organization has been providing community-based disaster response and preparedness for 44 years.

“They want to be feared. But we no longer have space for fear. We have been serving the communities for so many years,” she said.

The bank account of the CDRC has also been frozen. Dr. Balingit said that the amount of money kept in the bank account should have been the meager salary of their staff. “Very little money subjects us to terrorist linkages. The money would not even reach P100,000. This is not even a high-paying job for our staff.”

Echoing the same sentiment, Shen Maglinte, deputy director of Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT), said that they cannot cower in fear, especially for their staff and the communities they serve.

“He only wants to reap fear but we are very open and transparent. We are pushing for inclusive development,” Maglinte said.

NGO leaders said that the red-tagging against them and the malicious charges against them put their beneficiaries and the communities at grave human rights violations.

On their way forward, they signed the CSO Manifesto for Enabling and Strengthening Civic Space in the Philippines, with three key demands for the government to respect, protect, defend, and expand civic space, and to enable civil society’s contribution towards people-centered development anchored in human rights and social justice.

“Stop attacking NGOs. Uphold people’s right to development,” they said. (RTS, JJE) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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