human rights in the Philippines

Quezon City court clears activists in Esperon’s perjury charge

Jodesz Gavilan
Quezon City court clears activists in Esperon’s perjury charge

DEFEND THE DEFENDERS. Activists call for protection against harassment .

RMP photo

QC Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 Judge Aimee Alcera says the prosecution failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the activists made 'a willful and deliberate assertion of a falsehood'

MANILA, Philippines – A Quezon City court on Monday, January 9, acquitted activists and members of progressive groups of perjury stemming from a complaint filed during the Duterte administration.

Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 cleared 10 people on the basis of reasonable doubt. Presiding Judge Aimee Alcera, in the decision, said the prosecution failed to establish “beyond reasonable doubt that all accused made a willful and deliberate assertion of a falsehood.”

Those found not guilty include Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) national coordinator Elenita Belardo, GABRIELA chairperson Gertrudes Libang, GABRIELA secretary general Joan Salvador, and Karapatan national council members Cristina Palabay, Elisa Lubi, Roneo Clamor, Edita Burgos, Wilfredo Ruazol, Gabriela Krista Dalena, and Jose Mari Callueng.

The case stemmed from a perjury complaint filed by then-national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. in 2019 accusing RMP of falsely claiming to be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). 

RMP is a missionary religious group that works with peasants, indigenous peoples, and other minority groups. It is a non-profit organization run primarily by nuns and other lay people involved in grassroots projects and programs with rural poor communities across the country.

The perjury complaint was filed by Esperon as activists sought protection from the courts against red-tagging and violence under then-president Rodrigo Duterte. Esperon was named as one of the respondents in the petitions filed by the activists and progressive groups.

A November 2019 resolution by Quezon City Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Nilo Peñaflor initially charged only RMP national coordinator Elenita Belardo, clearing the others, as she was the only one who identified herself as being with the group in question. 

Esperon, however, filed an appeal and succeeded in charging the rest of the activists and nuns, even if they said they signed pleadings “in good faith.” QC Prosecutor Vimar Marcellano, in a February 2020 resolution, said the respondents “cannot feign ignorance” and that the claim of good faith would be best determined during the trial period.

Alcera, in the court decision dated January 9, said that while the Supreme Court recognizes that perjury strikes at the very administration of the laws, “at the heart of every criminal proceeding is that every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”

Karapatan called the decision a victory “of truth and justice against lies and enemies of the people.” 

“We will continue to explore all options under domestic and international human rights mechanisms to hold the perpetrators of this form of judicial harassment accountable,” it said in a statement. 

“Under any regime, especially now under another Marcos, human rights defenders, together with rights violations victims, and fighters for justice, will prevail,” the group added.

RMP, Karapatan, and GABRIELA are just among the many progressive and human rights groups that were targeted by the state, especially during the Duterte administration’s crackdown on dissent. 

In August 2022, members of RMP were indicted for terror financing, or allegedly providing funds to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). The Anti-Money Laundering Council also previously froze bank accounts linked to RMP in 2019.

RMP’s website was also among those that Esperon sought to block in June 2022. – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.