MANILA (UPDATE) - Ten human rights defenders who initially sought but failed to obtain protection from the courts against alleged threats and attacks from government forces are now facing charges for allegedly lying in their own petition.
Charged with perjury before a Quezon City metropolitan trial court were Elisa Tita Lubi, Cristina Palabay, Roneo Clamor, Gabriela Krista Dalena, Edita Burgos, Jose Mari Calleung and Wilfredo Ruazol of rights group Karapatan.
Also charged were Joan May Salvador and Gertrudes Libang of Gabriela, and Sr. Emma Cupin, a 63-year-old nun who belongs to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP).
Lubi and Palabay are the chairperson and secretary-general of Karapatan, respectively, while Salvador is the secretary-general of Gabriela. Burgos is the mother of missing activist Jonas Burgos.
Eight of the 10 accused posted an P18,000-bail on Monday. Palabay and Cupin are outside Metro Manila.
The charge stems from the complaint filed by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., who claimed that the rights activists lied under oath in the writ of amparo petition that Karapatan, Gabriela and RMP filed with the Supreme Court in May last year against him, several government agencies and officials and President Rodrigo Duterte.
The SC referred the petition to the Court of Appeals which dismissed it in July 2019 due to lack of evidence.
Esperon, who also serves as vice-chairperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), said the activists lied when they claimed that RMP is a duly authorized registered non-stock, non-profit organization when RMP’s certificate of registration had been revoked by the Securities and Exchange Commission as early as Sept 29, 2003.
Quezon City senior assistant city prosecutor Nilo Peñaflor initially indicted over the same act only RMP’s Sr. Elenita Belardo, an 80-year-old nun, in his resolution dated November 8, 2019, finding no probable cause against the other respondents.
But in a February 24 resolution resolving Esperon’s motion for reconsideration, City Prosecutor Vimar Barcellano found basis to charge the accused after concluding that RMP’s supposed SEC registration was an “untruthful statement upon a material matter.”
A charge of perjury requires that the false statement on a material matter be made under oath before a competent officer authorized to administer oaths. The sworn statement must also be required by law.
“[A]ll respondents cannot feign ignorance about the falsehood willfully stated in their Verification/Certification as to the unregistered status of RMP. As to their claim of good faith, the issue of whether they acted in good faith is best determined, however, during the trial proper,” Barcellano said.
He added, the respondents failed to rebut the claim that RMP’s certificate of registration remains revoked.
The complaint against another respondent, Reylan Vergara of Karapatan, was dismissed after the prosecutor noted he took an oath in Iloilo, outside the jurisdiction of a Quezon City court.
In a Facebook post late Monday, Palabay said she intends to post bail when she returns from Geneva, Switzerland where she is currently doing advocacy work at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC)
“What is lodged as a reprisal suit against us human rights defenders who sought the Supreme Court’s writs of amparo and habeas data for legal protection against threats to our lives, liberties and security is now a full-blown case in court. With this, it seems that, instead of being provided with relief from these attacks by the judicial system, the judicial system itself is being abused as an instrument of our political persecution,” she wrote.
“This malicious, baseless and utterly absurd perjury charge is yet another proof of the closing civic and democratic space in the Philippines. It is ironic that this case has been revived from its earlier dismissal, amid Karapatan’s continuing advocacy work in the Philippines and at the UN HRC and our persistent efforts to pursue a just and lasting peace,” she added.
But Palabay vowed the charges will not deter her and her fellow-activists from continuing to seek accountability and justice.
“Even with these developments, we remain steadfast and committed, and more defiant than ever to continue the work that we do. While we will address the lies and contortions of Esperon and his hyenas in the NTF-ELCAC in court, we will avail all possible venues for justice and accountability, not only for embattled human rights defenders like ourselves, but more importantly for the poor and oppressed sectors, communities and groups who have been at the receiving end of fascist attacks by this administration,” she said.
Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International called on the Philippine government to drop perjury charges against activists who sought court protection.
"Amnesty International is alarmed that human rights defenders and political activists are facing constant threats and undue restrictions to their rights to freedom of expression and association as a result of their efforts to seek protection against such threats," the group said in a statement.
"Not only is the government preventing activists from doing their work, it is also depriving them of access to legal recourse," they added.
Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 has set the arraignment and pre-trial or preliminary conference on March 16 at 2 p.m.