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DAVAO CITY, Philippines – For nearly a year, two young Lumads languished behind bars on mere suspicion that they committed a crime and had links to the New People’s Army (NPA).
A Tagum City court found no evidence of qualified human trafficking against the Lumad siblings, Mawing and Ismael Pangadas, and the two were released from jail on Friday, May 26.
The court also acquitted volunteer community teacher Lerma Lawian and her husband Jeffrey Diagone, and non-governmental organization worker Elenita Elmino.
Authorities arrested the Pangadas brothers based on a court warrant, and shortly after a demonstration at the Freedom Park along Roxas Avenue in Davao City that was organized in time for the first State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on July 26, 2022.
Lawian, Diagone, and Elmino were arrested on separate occasions in Davao del Sur and Davao de Oro in September and November 2022 based on the same qualified human trafficking case several months after the arrest of the young Lumad men.
Authorities had accused them of exploiting children at a Lumad school established by the Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center Incorporated in the city.
In 2019, the then-Davao mayor and now Vice President Sara Duterte sought the shutdown of 11 Salugpongan Ta’ Tanu Igkanugon schools in the city, accusing those running the group of engaging in “deceptive acts and practices.”
The Department of Education (DepEd) in Region XI subsequently ordered the closure of 55 Salupungan schools in the Davao region that same year, several months after it suspended the organization’s operating license due to alleged violations and supposed links to communist rebels.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has been accusing Lumad schools of training child warriors and exploiting them to generate funds and profit.
Incidentally, Duterte is now the education secretary and co-vice chairperson of the red-tagging NTF-ELCAC.
Before their release from the Davao del Norte Provincial Rehabilitation Center, the Pangadas brothers expressed their gratitude to all those who helped them find justice.
“I will still choose to fight for my future after what we have experienced because I see no wrong in it,” the 23-year-old Ismael said.
Judge Jimmy Boco of the Regional Trial Court-Branch 2 of Tagum City trashed the case against the Pangadas siblings, Lawian, Diagone, and Elmino, stating in his ruling that mere “suspicion alone is insufficient,” and that an accusation of such crime required a “quantum of evidence.”
“With the prosecution having failed to discharge its burden of establishing the guilt of all accused beyond a reasonable doubt, the court is constrained, as its bounden duty when reasonable doubt persists, to acquit them,” read part of the court ruling.
Beverly Longit, convenor of the Lumad rights advocacy group Katribu, said the dismissal of the case exposed the penchant of state agents to fabricate cases against members and supporters of Lumad schools.
Longit hailed the court’s decision as an affirmation of the “fight to develop educational communities rooted in indigenous knowledge, scientific concepts of sustainability, and neocolonial approaches to history.”
One of the lawyers of the group, Dexter Lopoz, said it saddened him that the Lumad siblings, the couple, and a community development worker had to suffer for months and face the prospect of life imprisonment for a crime they did not commit. They had been charged with a non-bailable crime.
He said Lawian, the volunteer teacher, had a baby that had to be breastfed when she and her husband were arrested in September last year.
Lopoz of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) stood as counsel for Mawing Pangadas and Diagone while lawyer Manuel Quibod, the dean of Ateneo de Davao University’s College of Law, stood as counsel for Ismael Pangadas and Lawian, and the Public Attorney’s Office represented Elmino.
He said Mawing Pangadas was a minor at the time the alleged crime was committed and that those who stood as complainants were his schoolmates, which meant that he had exercised no authority over them.
The defense lawyers also proved in court that the Pangadas siblings did not know the road that was supposedly used for transporting students.
Lawian or the other adults were not with them, and neither did they persuade nor instruct the young Lumad students to make the trip, he said.
Lopoz said a witness failed to identify Diagone during questioning in court.
The lawyers also proved in court that no discussions about taking up arms against the government were conducted in the Salugpungan schools, other than farming, Science, Math, and English classes. – Rappler.com
Lucelle Bonzo is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow.