Philippines: Court acquits 10 human rights defenders

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Paris-Geneva, January 11, 2023 – After more than three years of judicial harassment, 10 human rights defenders, including members of Karapatan, the women’s rights organisation Gabriela (both OMCT member organisations), and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, were acquitted of perjury charges. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (International Federation for Human Rights-FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture-OMCT) welcomes their acquittal but reminds the defenders should never have been criminalised for their human rights work

On January 9, 2023, the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 acquitted 10 human rights defenders who were facing more than two years of imprisonment on bogus “perjury” charges, in retaliation for their actions seeking legal protection for fellow human rights defenders amid a new wave of violence against them back in 2019. Presiding judge Aimee Alcera ruled that the prosecution had failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the 10 human rights defenders made a “willful and deliberate assertion of falsehood”.

The acquitted rights defenders are: Elisa Tita Lubi, Karapatan Chairperson; Cristina Palabay, Karapatan Secretary General; Roneo Clamor, Karapatan Deputy Secretary General; Gabriela Grista Dalena, Karapatan Treasurer; Edita Burgos, Wilfredo Ruazol, and Jose Mari Callueng, Karapatan National Council members; Gertrudes Ranjo Libang, Gabriela Chairperson; Joan May Salvador, Gabriela Secretary General; and Emma Cupin, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) member.

In May 2019, all of them filed a petition for the writ of amparo (protection order) and habeas data (access to information) before the Supreme Court, seeking protection against threats, attacks, and harassment by government officials against human rights defenders in the Philippines. The Philippine Court of Appeals denied their petition in June 2019, after which the authorities responded with retaliatory measures against them. On July 2, 2019, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who was named in the petition, lodged a “perjury” complaint against them, alleging the 10 defendants had committed that offence by stating that the RMP was a registered non-governmental organisation at the Securities and Exchange Commission in the petition they filed before the Supreme Court. While the perjury complaint was initially dismissed for “lack of probable cause and/or insufficiency of evidence”, in February 2020, the Quezon City prosecutor sustained a motion for reconsideration filed by the National Security Adviser and found probable cause to charge the 10 human rights defenders with “perjury”.

The Observatory welcomes the acquittal of the above-mentioned human rights defenders from Karapatan, Gabriela, and RMP and reiterates its steadfast solidarity with them and its support to their peaceful and essential human rights work. However, the Observatory recalls that they should never have been subjected to judicial harassment in the first place, as they were prosecuted solely for their legitimate human rights work.

The Observatory recalls that the judicial harassment against Karapatan, Gabriela, and RMP was not an isolated case, but part of a pattern of attacks against human rights defenders in the Philippines led by both state and non-state actors, which include killings, arbitrary detention, criminalisation, and stigmatisation campaigns.

A highly hostile climate for human rights defenders prevails in the Philippines. The killings of defenders are rarely investigated, which increases the vulnerability of those who remain active, while undermining the human rights community’s confidence in the justice system. In addition, the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed in July 2020, further compounded the precarious situation for human rights defenders by legally institutionalising the practice of “red-tagging” defenders with overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism.

The Observatory calls on the new President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and his administration, to revert this pattern, cease the threats and attacks against human rights defenders and ensure the protection of their rights, including the rights to life, due process, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

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