MANILA, Philippines – Expelled Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) minister Lowell Menorca II took the witness stand at the Court of Appeals (CA) for the first time on Tuesday, January 26, to undergo cross examination on his claims that he was abducted and illegally detained for 3 months in 2015 under orders of top church officials.
But the INC lawyers are questioning Menorca's claims, branding them mere "speculative" and "fanciful" threats instead of actual overt acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation.
The appellate court's 7th division is currently hearing the petitions for writs of habeas corpus and amparo filed by Menorca's relatives in October 2015.
The petitions stemmed from Menorca's claims that he had been abducted in Sorsogon, brought to Dasmariñas City, and charged with illegal possession of firearms in an effort to force him to expose members critical of the church. The expelled church worker also said that his wife and daughter had been detained at the time. (READ: INC minister Lowell Menorca: The story of my kidnapping)
He later said that he had been forced to deny that he was abducted because he feared for his family's safety.
During Tuesday's cross examination proceedings, INC counsel Rogelio Vinluan questioned Menorca on portions of his judicial affidavit and his previous statements where he denied that the abductions had occurred.
Menorca maintained that his earlier statements were scripted and were made under duress.
"We were restrained and stopped from going out, we had guards around us, our liberty was being restrained," he said.
But Vinluan pressed him to identify actual threats made against the ex-minister and his family.
"What do you mean under duress? Were there actual threats? It must be a real threat, not one that is speculative or fanciful," he said.
Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler
In his questioning, Vinluan brought up incidents where the former minister had claimed that he was under duress: a handwritten affidavit Menorca had signed when he was arrested in Cavite, and his television interview on GMA7 where he denied that he was abducted.
In both instances, Menorca responded that he had been told to make those statements and to go along with the leadership's orders because at the time, his wife and daughter were supposedly with the INC.
He added that he had admitted to the charges against him in Cavite to ensure that his family will not be hurt.
To this, Vinluan asked: "Why, did anyone say that they will be harmed?"
Menorca replied, "Sabi ng pulis, basta sumunod ka lang, walang mangyayaring masama sa asawa ko." (The police said, just follow and nothing bad will happen to your wife.)
But Vinluan was not satisfied, repeatedly asking the ex-minister to identify any instances of actual harm or threats againt him and his family.
The lawyer also pointed out that the Menorcas were even allowed to go outside the INC central compound escorted by security, and to receive visitors. Vinluan also presented photos showing the Menorcas smiling while inside the compound.
Menorca insisted that the restraint on their liberty constituted a threat.
"If by harm you mean a knife, for instance, that was being pointed at us, there was no such thing. But our liberty was restrained," he said in Filipino.
He added, "Being restrained from going out and surrounded by security is a threat."
Implied, indirect threats
But that alleged restraint on the Menorcas' freedom, Vinluan argued, ceased after Menorca moved out from the INC compound and into the house of his wife's nephew in October 2015.
"So the restraint on your liberty ceased?" he asked.
"Yes, but the threat was continuing," Menorca answered, adding that there were motorcycles surveying the area where they had moved.
Asked by Vinluan if the respondents in the petition – INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo and church officials Radel Cortez, Bienvenido Santiago, and Rolando Esguerra – made any overt threats against Menorca, he replied, "Direct, no. Implied and indirect, yes."
In an interview with reporters after the hearing, Menorca clarified, "When I say direct threats, it's in relation to the respondents saying directly, in front of me, verbally, those threats. So that's why I said it's implied and indirect."
But he added that he and his family continue to fear for their lives.
He expressed the same sentiment last week, when plainclothes policemen arrested him as he was on his way to the CA. The arrest warrant stemmed from a libel complaint filed against Menorca in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte.
Two more libel complaints later surfaced against Menorca – one from Marawi City, and another from Cavite. He has since been released after posting bail.
Menorca's family had slammed his arrest as "overkill," saying the move was orchestrated by the influential church to block his testimony in court.
The INC denied any involvement in his arrest, saying their legal team had been prepared and waiting for Menorca to appear in court.
Ongoing legal battle
During Tuesday's hearing, INC lawyers brought up before the court Menorca's earlier statement that his arrest last week had been orchestrated to stop him from testifying.
They asked the court to warn Menorca not to continue "going around town" making accusations against the INC, pointing out that at the time of Menorca's arrest, his testimony was already on record through his judicial affidavit.
For his part, Menorca said that he remains "confident" about the course of the proceedings.
"I know that it will eventually reveal the whole truth...we are very hopeful that the justice system will prevail and that we will be vindicated," he told reporters.
"The public knows what's happening. I believe they can read between the lines. They're very perceptive and intelligent, they can connect the dots on what's really happening," he added.
The CA held the first hearing on the petitions in November 2015, with the respondents moving to have the petitions dismissed for being "moot and academic."
In earlier hearings, INC lawyers also questioned the accuracy of witness testimonies. They also sought to debunk claims that the Menorcas lived in “deplorable conditions” while supposedly detained for 3 months at the INC compound in Quezon City. – Rappler.com