CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – A regional court in Agusan del Sur dismissed the kidnapping and robbery cases and freed 17 non-governmental workers, rights activists, and peace advocates filed in 2019.
Judge Fernando Fudalan Jr. of the Regional Trial Court Branch 7 in Bayugan City, said the 17 accused, mostly members of Karapatan, Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), Kadamay, and other organizations were detained for more than a year without the “benefit of a speedy trial” due to delays in the prosecution.
Fudalan quashed the warrants of arrest issued against the 17 for being null and void, citing the inadequate affidavits filed by the complainants composed of two soldiers and 12 militiamen.
The accused – Teresita Naul, Aldeem Yañez, Ireneo Udarbe, Francisco Pagayaman, Ophelia Tabacon, Jumorito Guaynon, Jerry and Gerald Basahon, Aida Ibrahim, Mylene Coleta, Hanilyn Cepedes, Ritchel Hilogon, Cecilia Acenas, Wildon Barros, Reywynx Morgado, Mujahid Caballero, and Vicente Libona – were charged with destructive arson, kidnapping, robbery with violence or intimidation.
Fudalan also assailed the use by the prosecution to arrest the NGO workers by using the “John Does” in the warrants.
He said for “John Doe” warrants to be valid, it should have the description of the appearance of the accused, which the prosecution failed to establish.
The decision was promulgated on June 10, but the lawyers of the accused received their copies only this week.
While the 17 NGO workers were ordered released, 35 were still in prison in Agusan del Sur, including National Democratic Front consultant Alfredo Mapano, to answer murder charges filed against them.
The so-called “Sibagat cases” against a total of 52 NGO workers in northern Mindanao had sent shockwaves among human rights advocates.
The military filed the cases against the NGO workers after New People’s Army rebels raided a paramilitary camp in Barangay Tubigon, Sibagat town in Agusan del Sur, on February 19, 2019.
Two soldiers and 12 militiamen were taken hostage by the rebels but were released unharmed later.
Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Emeritus Antonio Ledesma, co-convenor of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), hailed the court decision to release the workers.
“They were vindicated by the decision,” Ledesma said.
Now that they are freed, Ledesma said the NGO workers can continue their humanitarian work in their respective places.
Ledesma said the decision was timely because it came during the celebration of Mindanao Week of Peace.
The Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) in Cagayan de Oro, which assisted them, said the court’s declaration that facts and circumstances obtained in the cases proved the accused did not commit any of the offenses charged against the activists and peace advocates.
Czarina Gołda Musni, UPLM secretary-general, said the UPLM also hailed the dismissal of the last Sibagat case of kidnapping and serious illegal detention that Fudalan penned on October 8, 2021.
Musni said the court noted the delay was unreasonable, citing the “instant case dragged from more than a year solely for the purpose of reinvestigation – a procedure that should be part of the preliminary investigation.”
“The UPLM viewed the resolutions as a clear rebuke of the prosecution, in observing that a period of more than one year to process reinvestigation is an appositely unreasonable stretch of time for a case of kidnapping and serious illegal detention which does not involve issues of much complexity. The prosecution in spite of delay did not offer explanation whatsoever to justify its inaction,” read part of the UPLM statement.
The UPLM lauded Fudalan for his judicial probity and courage in dismissing the Sibagat cases that accorded justice to the victims of state harassments and persecution for advocating social justice and respect for the right to life and dignity and in upholding the rule of law.
With these resolutions, Naul, a UPLM staff member and a founding member of Karapatan, was released from detention after being incarcerated for a year and seven months at the provincial jail in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur.
Naul, 64, told Rappler on Wednesday that her incarceration amid her innocence did not deter her resolve to continue with her human rights work now that she is free.
“I have been serving the people particularly in cases of human rights violations before I was detained. Working in the human rights has been my life,” Naul said. – Rappler.com
Froilan Gallardo and Grace Cantal-Albasin are Mindanao-based journalists and awardees of Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.