At SC, Esperon red-tags progressives and warns of new terror designations

Only a day after exhaustive lectures on the complexities of communism and why it's harmful to red-tag, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr was allowed by the Supreme Court to red-tag progressive groups in open court Wednesday, May 12, during Day 8 of the anti-terror law oral arguments.

Esperon also announced that the anti-terror council would make new terror designations, not of groups but individuals supposedly connected to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples' Army (NPA). The designation could be published as early as Thursday, May 13.

"I do not want to preempt the anti-terrorism council, because I have not seen yet the designation of several persons connected with the CPP-NPA, but we will do that. There is a resolution of the anti-terror council, but until we have published these in local papers, we will not name them publicly, tomorrow they will come out in the papers," Esperon told the Supreme Court.

The council designated the CPP-NPA as a terror group in December 2020. Pursuant to the anti-terror law, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) has then moved to freeze the CPP-NPA's assets.

But whose assets, when there were no named individuals in the designation? AMLC Executive Director Mel Racela said the freeze order would cover "related accounts."

Frozen assets as result of designation

The government, through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and the Department of Justice, has maintained that the only consequence of designation is freezing of assets, not arrest.

This has raised fears among red-tagged groups that their assets would be targeted, seeing that even before the anti-terror law was passed, the government froze the assets of nun group Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) using the terrorism financing act. The government accuses RMP as financiers of the NPA.

During his interpellation, Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo also mentioned that a preliminary financial investigation done by AMLC concluded that there is a likelihood that progressive women's group Gabriela has funds connected to the NPA. Gesmundo asked that to quiz the government lawyers if the anti-terror law poses a direct threat to progressive groups.

Esperon was allowed to play two videos to the Supreme Court of CPP founding chairman Jose Maria Sison naming progressive groups as supposedly belonging to the CPP network. The purpose of playing the video, Esperon said, was to prove that Sison is "the master red-tagger," and that they are only "truth-tagging."

Esperon was not challenged on these claims.

Renato Reyes, secretary general of the red-tagged Bayan, called the Sison videos a "recycled lie."

"The video played at the SC today is based on the recycled lie that Bayan is connected to the CPP because Prof. Joma Sison referred to it as among the legal democratic forces. Only the hopelessly idiotic will construe that to mean Bayan is a front organization of the CPP," said Reyes.

Reyes said that if such videos are the government's only basis for designating Bayan members or other activists, "then that would simply be absurd and will expose the terror law as indeed a sham and an instrument to curtail basic rights. "

'Ironic'

The last days of the oral arguments have seen justices quiz lawyers from the Office of the Solicitor General on red-tagging, lecturing the government of the intricacies of communism and warning them of harms. 

On Wednesday, Gesmundo and case lead Associate Justice Rosmari Carandang even asked if there's already McCarthyism in the Philippines.

McCarthyism was a social phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s, also called as the Red Scare, and refers to the practice of accusing people of subversion or treason as connected to communism.

"Do you not agree that is the situation now in our country?" Gesmundo asked.

Yet despite that rhetoric from justices, Esperon was allowed to red-tag in open court.

Esperon did not only red-tag groups mentioned by Sison in the video, he also red-tagged a known economist.

"I'm not an economist, but if there's no insurgency, our gross national product would go up by 1%," said Esperon.

"There is one personality from the CPP-NPA that claims that this insurgency has no effect in our gross national product," Esperon said, and named the economist's nonprofit which has an established history of providing research on socioeconomics.

On Twitter, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, a counsel and a petitioner in the case, said what happened in open court was "ironic."

"Ironic that the red tagging was allowed in open session after the Chief Justice himself directly asked the OSG if what is happening now wasn't reminiscent of McCarthyism," said Te.

He added: "Perhaps the Court could have previewed the videos first for relevance and also for authenticity, and then made a determination if it should be played in open session with annotation. But it was also the uncontested annotation of the videos that was so grossly unfair and prejudicial. It amounted to direct examination testimony of a witness not placed under oath and not allowed to be cross-examined."

Te later deleted the tweets and said, "I was reminded of the standing directive against extrajudicial comment by counsels on the case; will just put my objections to the events of today in the appropriate motion before the Court." – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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