NTF-ELCAC’s continuing reprisal suit vs rights defenders a form of judicial harassment

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., also vice chairperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), took the witness stand yesterday, December 20, 2021, at the trial on his perjury charges against officials of human rights group Karapatan, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), and Gabriela at the Quezon City Municipal Trial Court Branch 139.

“We hope that the court will see these charges for what they really are — a form of reprisal on our efforts to seek legal protection and redress from threats to our lives, security and liberties and a means to harass and intimidate us from doing our work as human rights defenders,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, who was recently awarded by the French and German governments as one of this year’s laureates of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

Palabay mentioned the case as a “form of judicial harassment” in her acceptance speech in a ceremony last December 15, 2021. On July 2, 2019, after Karapatan officials and those of RMP and Gabriela filed a petition for the writ of amparo and habeas data before the Supreme Court, Esperon filed a perjury complaint against the ten human rights defenders who served as petitioners.

In January 2020, a Quezon City prosecutor dismissed the complaint against eight of them, but Esperon filed for a motion for reconsideration, which was acted upon by the senior city prosecutor resulting in the issuance of arrest warrants against Palabay and seven others cited as respondents in the case. Palabay was then in Switzerland participating in the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions, while the six others filed for bail. Upon her return to Manila, she also filed for bail, but in July 2020, she was still served with an arrest warrant on the case by police personnel who posed as couriers of a private delivery service company. The hearings on the case continue, with the prosecution presenting their evidence and witnesses, primarily Esperon.

Palabay said that “the recent decision of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 32 on the trumped-up murder charges against peasant leaders and peace consultants driven by the NTF-ELCAC, whose principal witnesses include Esperon, would bear out the truth — that the claims against those who speak out against human rights violations and social injustices are baseless and malicious.”

On December 16, 2021 a Manila Regional Trial Court judge granted the demurrer to evidence filed by eight of those impleaded in the case, while dismissing charges against seven respondents. “Simply, the Court merely declares that the prosecution, with the nature of the testimonies of its witnesses and the pieces evidence they presented, failed to pass the exacting standard of moral certainty to discharge its burden of establishing the guilt of accused-movants to secure their conviction for the crimes charged and overcome their constitutional presumption of innocence,” said the judge in her decision.

“NSA Esperon and the NTF-ELCAC apparently want human rights defenders and political dissidents in jail through these legal cases, steeped in perjured testimonies and/or planted evidence. We appeal to officers of the court, especially judges, to exercise probity and independence, to see through these fabricated lies and dismiss these trumped-up charges,” Palabay concluded.