Who’s Afraid of the Rural Missionaries, GABRIELA & Karapatan?

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Not the poor and the marginalized, not the human rights victims and certainly not the families of the thousands of poor people caught in the so-called drug war nor the unarmed civilians and communities hit by the counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapanatagan.

It is the Philippine National Security Adviser (NSA) Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. (Ret.) and all that he represents and works for – which is the government, the military, the courts and all the state agencies and departments.

Here is the story.

Last July, Esperon, Jr. filed perjury charges to retaliate against the Rural Missionaries (RMP), GABRIELA and Karapatan which had filed their petition for the writs of amparo and habeas data before the Supreme Court in May of this year. These groups asked the Court for protection and for the military to stop committing threats and acts violating their rights to life, liberty and security. They also asked that government officials provide them with all the information on the charges against them. (The writ of amparo (Spanish for protection) will prevent the military in judicial proceedings to issue denial answers to petitions on disappearances or extrajudicial executions and allow the petitioners the right of access to information under the writ of habeas data.)

The RMP, GABRIELA and Karapatan are grassroots organizations that have been around for decades. They have long track records of working for the poor and the marginalized. The Rural Missionaries has been around for 50 years, GABRIELA 35 years and Karapatan 24 years – all three with stellar histories of  protecting and defending the human rights of the workers, farmers and poor communities.  And in doing their social justice and human rights defense work, these activist defenders have been targeted as well.  One can say that these groups have done effective work  so much so that those in power (and those who are guilty) have no qualms attacking them. 

While the Supreme Court issued the writs of amparo and habeas data to the three groups in May, it also directed the Court of Appeals (14th Division) to hear the petition and submit its decision. In June, the Court of Appeals held a three-hour hearing on the petition but interestingly enough, did not allow the groups to present their evidence, witnesses and affidavits. The Court of Appeals dismissed the petition, which then prompted NSA Esperon, Jr.  to hit back with a perjury charge.

NSA Esperon, Jr.  argued that the RMP’s registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission was revoked in 2003 and committed perjury when it declared itself as an NGO in the amparo petition. The RMP countered that it was not aware of this and had in fact renewed their registration in 2010, complied with all requirements, and declared RMP as an NGO in the amparo petition. Publicly, this perjury charge by the NSA is perceived as malicious retaliation. It would seem that the NSA could not find anything and just had to settle with this petty detail.

Sr. Elenita Belardo, Coordinator of the RMP, responded to the perjury charge with this statement: “We condemn the vilifying remarks made by Mr. Esperon against our organization. He said that the RMP is being “run by communists”, and that we facilitate “schools of the NPA” where the Lumad youth “are taught hate, hatred against the government. They’ve been spreading these lies. They’ve been red-tagging, harassing and threatening us.  These are the reasons why we filed the petition for writ of amparo and habeas data in the first place.”

RMP, GABRIELA and Karapatan have challenged this (as they should and did) and asked the Supreme Court to review and to annul the decision of the Court of Appeals. The case is now with the QC Prosecutor’s Office of the Department of Justice. A resolution is expected before the year ends.

The case with the NSA Esperon Jr. versus these three groups is an illustration of what the human rights situation in the Philippines is. A Human Rights Watch Philippine researcher described the Philippine situation as “a human rights calamity” in his TV interview on Canadian TV. This is a very apt comparison.

This human rights calamity is a man-made disaster caused by the current Duterte government and backed by the other state agencies like the military and police, the courts and government departments. It is a national calamity that has targeted and killed thousands of mostly poor Filipinos without due process.  And like the calamity that it is, it comes in relentless waves of attacks that also specifically targets human rights defenders, church people, and women. Attacks range from extrajudicial killings, arrests and detention, forced disappearances, cyber and online attacks, harassment, red-baiting and demonization, including the filing of trumped-up charges, and malicious ones like perjury.

With its long history of resistance from the time of Marcos and after, these people’s organizations refuse to be beaten and intimidated by this human rights calamity. They will confront this malicious perjury charge and other state attacks which are meant to intimidate, harm and stall the people’s movement. In the history of Philippine resistance, the people’s movement moves forward in strength and numbers despite all odds.  

The next months will be crucial for RMP, GABRIELA and Karapatan and for everything that they stand for. These groups need all our support and solidarity.

Hands off Human Rights Defenders! Stop the judicial harassment against Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and Gabriela!

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