In the end, it was a triumph for those wrongly accused of perjury, a triumph for the 10 human rights defenders whose only intention or fault, if you may, was to seek protection for themselves and their fellow human rights workers but who, as a result, were accused as liars, perjurers. They may have had disruptions in their everyday lives while the case was going on, they may have had sleepless nights and worry days, but after what they had gone through—going to trial and all—they became the poster people for those who suffer harassment from those who wield power. A double win, I must say.
Oh, but their main accuser and the prosecutors who lost the case could claim triumph, too—because they had successfully, if unwittingly (?), caused fear, worry, and anxiety among the accused, their families, and communities. The case was a warning—clear, dangerous, fearsome. Unprecedented even. A lesson, too.
For how is it that a group of people who seek succor from the Supreme Court by filing a petition for a writ of amparo and habeas data would be slapped with a perjury case by a high-ranking government official on account of a slight error in their petition? Unbeknownst to the petitioners, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), to which a petitioner belongs, was no longer registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). “Slight” to me, because the petitioners were mostly human rights workers, not corporate types with hired corporate lawyers who look after their papers.
And so they are liars, perjurers who must be haled to court, a nun among them, Sister Elenita Belardo of the Religious of the Good Shepherd, former chair of the RMP? So is Edita Burgos, widow of press freedom icon Jose Burgos who belongs to the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites? (Her son Jonas is a desaparecido who was allegedly abducted by military men.)
From the decision penned by Judge Aimee Marie B. Alcera of the Metropolitan Trial Court (Branch 139) of Quezon City:
“In sum, for failure of the prosecution to establish beyond reasonable doubt that all accused made a willful and deliberate assertion of a falsehood, all accused must perforce be acquitted.
“WHEREFORE, in light of the foregoing,” Sister Elenita Belardo, RGS, Elisa Tita Lubi, Cristina Palabay, Roneo Clamor, Gabriela Krista Dalena, Edita Burgos, Jose Mari Callueng, Wilfredo Ruazol, Joan May Salvador, Gertrudes R. Libang “are ALL hereby ACQUITTED of the charge of perjury, all on the ground of REASONABLE DOUBT.
“SO ORDERED. 09 January 2023, Quezon City.”
What a relief for the 10 accused who, for more than three years since 2019, had to endure anxiety and worry, not to mention disruptions in their everyday lives, simply because of an erroneous entry in their 2019 petition for a writ of amparo and habeas data.
The RMP, founded some 50 years ago, is a mission partner of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines. It has been tagged by the military as a communist-terrorist front. Red-tagged. The perjury case against the 10 accused was an effort of Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, National Security Adviser and vice chair of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict during the Duterte administration.
I have a copy of the decision of Judge Alcera and the trial memorandum “for accused Belardo,” which I found a bit entertaining, if not instructive. There it was argued that the SEC registration is not even material to the amparo petition. The prosecution also failed to discredit Belardo’s invocation of good faith. In her judicial affidavit, Belardo stated: “I am at peace because I did not lie.”
And when asked about the group’s petition for a writ of amparo and habeas data, Belardo answered: “The writ of amparo will protect us from respondents’ acts of Red-tagging and harassment that threaten our security and safety. Personally, it was my hope and prayer that with the filing of the petition, the respondents would relent from committing further acts of Red-tagging and harassing RMP and its members.”
That is where it all started. But even before the petition of amparo was filed with the Supreme Court on May 6, 2019, Esperon already had the goods on RMP. “One curious fact,” the memorandum called it. But that, folks, is called “intelligence.”
With all due respect to those in power who are into intelligence work and, uh, oodles of so-called “intelligence funds” that citizens of this country may not be privy to, use the funds intelligently.
Words of triumph from Burgos: “This acquittal is a downpour on parched land!”
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