LOS ANGELES, California — Two of 3 leaders of a church founded by Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, a friend of President Rodrigo Duterte, have pleaded not guilty to charges of labor trafficking and immigration fraud before a US court Thursday.
Guia Cabactulan, 59, earlier described as a "top official" of Quiboloy's church, and Marissa Duenas, 41, who allegedly handled immigration documents and kept passports of victims of an alleged human trafficking ring, each entered not guilty pleas during their brief appearances.
A third defendant, Amanda Estopare, 48, who handled the church's "financial aspects" and fundraising, failed to appear before the court.
The 3 are accused of illegally obtaining visas and other immigration documents for church members to enter and stay in the US.
Federal prosecutors said the three leaders — Cabactulan, Duenas, and Estopare — brought church members to the United States under false pretenses, often telling them that they were invited to be special guests at a concert supporting the church’s ministry.
But once the church members arrived in the United States, their passports were immediately taken away by the three church administrators, who then forced them to collect donations for the Children’s Joy Foundation, a nonprofit run by the church that claims to help impoverished children in the Philippines, according to a criminal complaint.
The church raised about $20 million from 2014 through mid-2019, but most of the money went back into the church’s coffers and to pay for luxury goods for church leaders that included a Bentley, a bulletproof Cadillac Escalade, an Armani suit and real estate, the complaint said. The church also owns a mansion in Calabasas, California.
The workers received little to no pay and were required to meet steep fundraising quotas. Top performers, known as “assets,” were then forced into sham marriages with other church members, or made to obtain student visas so they could stay in the country, prosecutors said. Investigators said church leaders had arranged 82 such marriages in the past 20 years.
Those who failed to meet quotas faced punishments that included paddling or being forced to spend three to five days in isolation in a walled section of the compound while being denied food and listening to prerecorded sermons by church leaders, according to the complaint.
One victim told investigators that church leaders “shaved her head and made her wear an orange shirt with ‘SOS’ on the back, which stood for ‘Son of Satan,’ ” Anne M. Wetzel, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, wrote in the criminal complaint.
A lawyer of Quiboloy earlier said the trio's arrest was part of a "grand conspiracy" by former members who wanted to humiliate the church leader.
Malacañang respects the US legal process, Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo said in January.
“You must remember that if a crime is committed in any country then the laws of that country will have to be followed. We have to respect them the way we ask them to respect ours,” he said.
Report from Steve Angeles, ABS-CBN News; with New York Times