A Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) has ordered freezing the assets of a progressive religious group for alleged terrorism financing, in what the group says is a test case of charges to be filed under the anti-terrorism law.
The Manila RTC last month issued an asset preservation order (APO) against the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines’ (RMP) bank accounts, which the government says were allegedly used to fund activities of the New People’s Army (NPA).
The government has initiated a civil forfeiture case against the RMP.
The RMP is one of several organizations asking that the anti-terrorism law be struck down.
They feared it would be used by the state to go after its critics by tagging them as communist rebels or fronts.
The RMP along with its co-petitioners in the religious sector told the Supreme Court of the APO in a manifestation filed Monday, in compliance with the court’s order for the parties to inform it of developments relevant to the case.
They said the “unprecedented filing of a case against a known progressive religious organization” relied largely on the testimonies of two supposed former CPP-NPA members who surrendered to the government.
“Supporting their statements linking the funds to the CPP-NPA were voluminous pages of bank documents which merely show legitimate financial transactions of an organization on their administrative and operational expenses,” the petitioners said.
“Thus, it is most deplorable that an APO was issued on October 7, 2020 in this test-case preluding the cases to be filed under the Anti-Terrorism Law,” they added.
The RMP has challenged the APO before the Manila RTC.
But even while that is pending, the RMP said intelligence and anti-communist insurgency officials had “maliciously and publicly maligned” their group “as a terrorist organization or a supporter of a terrorist organization.”
The petitioners told the SC of the statements of Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, and intelligence chief Alex Paul Monteagudo at a Senate hearing on “red-tagging.”
“Under these circumstances, the designation as a terrorist organization of the Petitioners is not just a possibility, it is a foregone conclusion unless the Honorable Court declares the ATA (Anti-Terrorism Act) as unconstitutional,” they said.
Another set of petitioners on Wednesday informed the SC of the case of two Aetas who were allegedly wrongly charged under the anti-terrorism law.
They said this is the first publicly known case where the implementation of the law violated a person’s rights.
Several groups challenging the law before the SC have complained of “red-tagging,” or the practice of labelling a person or an organization as a communist rebel or front, saying this endangers their lives.
President Rodrigo Duterte has proclaimed the CPP-NPA as a terrorist group after failed peace talks with the left but for the group to be officially outlawed requires a court declaration.
A petition for the proscription of the CPP-NPA has been pending with a Manila court since 2018.
The SC has scheduled a preliminary conference on the anti-terrorism law petitions for November 26.
There is no date yet for oral arguments.
The law has been in effect since July. Its implementing rules and regulations were promulgated in October.
In its compliance and manifestation filed with the tribunal, religious groups led by Archdiocese of Manila apostolic administrator Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the AMLC cited as basis for the forfeiture case Section 4 and 8 of Republic Act 10168, or the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012, stating that RMP-Northern Mindanao Sub Region Inc. had been providing financial and material support to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s army, a designated terrorist organization.
According to the group, the AMLC filed the forfeiture case based merely on the supposed testimonial accounts of two witnesses who were allegedly both former members of the CPP-NPA who surrendered to the government.
The petitioners said the RTC granted AMLC’s motion for the issuance of an APO without a thorough evaluation of the documents presented by the AMLC.
“Thus, it is most deplorable that an APO was issued on October 7, 2020 in this test-case preluding the cases to be filed under the Anti-Terrorism Law,” the petitioners lamented.
The petitioners asserted that this, and the series of incidents of red-tagging experienced by church leaders by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) would warrant the immediate issuance of an injunction against the ATA.
Meanwhile, some congressmen on Thursday said the testimony in open court by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. on the mass killing of communist cadres in the 1980s proved the seriousness of the government’s drive to stamp out the more than half century insurgency and deliver justice to the relatives of the victims.
A senior legislator, who requested anonymity said, “it is not everyday where you see the government’s top spy shed his anonymity and testify in court.”
Another congressman said Esperon’s act showed that the government was dead set on permanently restoring peace in the countryside and hasten the development of “heretofore unreachable areas due to the presence of armed communist guerrillas.”
In the course of his testimony at Branch 32 of the Manila Regional Trial Court, Esperon has challenged Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) founder Jose Maria Sison “to prove your innocence and explain why you should not be held accountable for the misery and suffering of CPP/NPA members for decades now.”
Esperon took the witness stand as the government’s 29th and final witness against Sison’s murder case in connection with the Inopacan Massacre.
On August 28, 2006 soldiers on patrol discovered a mass grave in Mount Sapang Dako in Inopacan, Leyte. Of the remains of 103 people found in the grave, only 15 were identified by their relatives and former comrades in the NPA.
Esperon, who was the Armed Forces chief of staff at that time, has filed cases against Sison, his wife Juliet, and 36 others. They are now facing 15 counts of murder before the Manila court presided by Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina.
“Sison’s trial for 15 counts of murder for the Inopacan Massacre is an opportune time for him to exhaust all the legal and constitutional right afforded to him by the very democracy he wished to destabilize even as he enjoys luxuries in the Netherlands. He and his lot are now given the opportunity to stand in court, to present their defense, and respond to the accusations against them,” Esperon said.
During the trial, Esperon said he has presented numerous pieces of evidence to prove that Sison and his co-accused are accountable for the said massacre such as videos and photos detailing the manner in which the victims were executed.
He said the Inopacan mass murder is part of the CPP-NPA’s attempt to purge its ranks of suspected government informants in the 1980s.
The official added that from 1984 to 1986, numerous eyewitness accounts have told stories of how the CPP-NPA launched a nationwide purge of their ranks.
Oplan Venereal Disease, as it was named in the Visayas, claimed the lives of around 3,000 communist cadres and guerrillas who were suspected of being government agents.
Esperon expressed confidence that after two decades of grief and despair, justice will be served for the victims and their relatives.
Esperon, who is the vice chairman of the National Task Force- End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), slammed the CPP-NPA’s acts of reinforcing the true criminal and terrorist nature of the group masquerading under the guise of a revolutionary armed group.
“Contrary to Sison’s contention, we do not play dirty, nor do we fabricate lies against the accused. This government respects the integrity and impartiality of the judicial proceedings as well as their right to due process; hence our clamor for the trial to proceed without delay,” Esperon said.
“I am beholden to the victims and the families they left behind to seek justice. In the same light, I urge Chairman Sison, who is now in his twilight years, to contemplate on his actions as the longstanding chairman of the CPP-NPA. With certainty, it can be stated that he and the CPP-NPA have caused decades of misery and suffering in the country and in particular, to his former comrades and their families,” Esperon added.
In pushing for the redevelopment of some barangays nationwide under the Barangay Development Program of NTF-ELCAC, Esperon pointed out that CPP-NPA remains to be the primary political threat and hindrance to peace and prosperity in the countryside.