QC court clears Catholic missionary nun, rights activists of perjury charges

January 12, 2023 - 12:26 PM
Human rights activists welcome a court decision in Manila on Jan. 9, 2023, that dismissed perjury charges filed against leaders of a religious organization and human rights advocates. (Photo by Mark Saludes/LiCas News via CBCP News)

A court in the Philippines cleared a Catholic missionary nun and several human rights activists of perjury charges that were filed by the country’s former national security adviser in 2019.

A Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court in the capital Manila acquitted the activists after the prosecution failed to establish “beyond reasonable doubt” that the accused “made a willful and deliberate assertion of a falsehood.”

Among those found not guilty were Sister Elenita Belardo, national coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP); women rights activists Gertrudes Libang and Joan Salvador; and human rights advocates Cristina Palabay, Elisa Lubi, Roneo Clamor, Edita Burgos, Wilfredo Ruazol, Gabriela Krista Dalena, and Jose Mari Callueng.

The case stems from a complaint filed by former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon who claimed that leaders of the RMP, human rights group Karapatan, and women’s group Gabriela lied in their petition for a “writ of amparo” before the Supreme Court.

Esperon — who was a respondent in the amparo petition — accused the activists of calling RMP a “registered non-stock, non-profit organization” even as the Securities and Exchange Commission reportedly revoked the organization’s certificate of registration in 2003.

The Quezon City prosecutor’s office initially indicted the 80-year-ol Belardo, a member of the Religious of the Good Shepherd congregation. Esperon later appealed and included the other activists in the charge.

In a statement, Karapatan welcomed the dismissal of the case, calling it “a victory of truth and justice, against lies.”

The human rights group maintained that the case was “aimed at disrupting our work … in helping victims (of human rights violations) seek justice, in defending the rights of 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,” read the Karapatan statement.

Women’s group Gabriela expressed hope that “this positive decision augurs well for the calls to stop the attacks against human rights defenders in the country.”

The ecumenical group Promotion of Church People’s Response said the acquittal of the activists was “a much hoped for result.”

“However, the very struggle to overcome this charge pushed by [Esperon] underscores the great dangers in defending human rights in the Philippines.”

The group said the threats, harassment, and other abuses faced by human rights defenders “are clear and present dangers.”

Ecumenical youth group Student Christian Movement of the Philippines also welcomed the dismissal of the case, saying “Our God is truly a God of justice and reason.”

“Through our faith and struggle, we can win against fabricated cases against human rights defenders and expose those who attempt to use the law for the defence of the selfish powerful,” said Kej Andres, the group’s national spokesperson.

“This victory is a joint effort not only by the legal teams of organizations, but also by the wide support of Filipino masses and Filipino religious who stand by the defense of human rights and defense of our faith to serve the marginalized,” he added.

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines is a religious organization, which is inter-congregational and inter-diocesan in character, of religious women and men, priests, and lay people that was founded on Aug. 15, 1969.

It is a “mission partner” of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, now known as the Conference of Major Superiors in the Philippines.

The faith-based group is currently under scrutiny of the Philippine government for alleged terrorism financing and for allegedly being an aboveground communist organization.