Abat charged with inciting to sedition, freed after posting bail

- Jose Rodel Clapano -
State prosecutors charged 80-year-old retired general Fortunato Abat and several other people yesterday with inciting to sedition for declaring a "revolutionary transition government" and calling for President Arroyo’s ouster.

Also charged with Abat were former budget secretary Salvador Enriquez, former diplomat Roy Señeres and lawyer Carlos Serapio and others identified only as "Jane and John Does." They immediately posted bail of P12,000 each and were released from custody.

Enriquez and Señeres are members of Abat’s "cabinet."

If convicted, Abat and his co-accused face a jail term of six months to six years and a fine of P2,000.

Filing the case in court, Senior State Prosecutor Emmanuel Velasco said Abat and his co-accused "did not commit any violence but they still violated the law by establishing a government of their own."

Their statements were "conducive to the destruction of the government itself," the prosecutors’ 10-page statement to the San Juan metropolitan trial court said.

Velasco said the statements from Abat’s group "tended to overthrow or undermine the security of the government or to weaken the confidence of the people in the government."

"It is enough that the words used may tend to create the danger of public uprising. It is not necessary that there be a clear and present danger of the substantial evil which the law aims to prevent," he argued.

"If the words used tend to create a danger of public uprising, then those words could properly be the subject of a penal clause," Velasco said.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said that while Abat and his group could be dismissed as a nuisance, the government had to take action for fear that Abat’s activities could escalate into "something more serious" at a time of swirling coup rumors.

Abat had already faced a complaint for inciting to sedition, filed in June by two lawyers. The case is still in the preliminary investigation stage.

"You have to consider that Abat can be the spark," Gonzalez said in a radio interview. "These are dangerous things. These situations can lead to an upsurge of emotions. We can’t allow these things to proceed."

Philippine National Police spokesman Chief Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil said Abat was charged to "ensure that a future violation of the same would not happen. This should serve as an example that the rule of law will prevail."

Abat was brought to court yesterday under heavy guard after being taken to a police hospital yesterday morning for a medical examination due to an irregular heartbeat.

Abat, a former defense secretary and ambassador to China, was taken in by police for questioning on Thursday after declaring a "revolutionary transition government and the formation of a transition government council to administer the affairs of government" with himself as its head.

Abat said Mrs. Arroyo had lost her moral authority to govern but denied he had planned to oust her. "Our movement is leading a peaceful event, not a coup or a military takeover," he said on television Thursday.

Mrs. Arroyo has been facing a political crisis since June over allegations of election cheating and corruption, but she denies any wrongdoing and shows no signs of stepping down.

Until yesterday, Malacañang had been playing down talk of a plot to unseat Mrs. Arroyo, despite an intelligence report naming a dozen retired and active-duty officers as its leaders.

"Adventurism is a thing of the past. Loyalty to the flag is firm and the people’s faith in the uniform remains unsullied," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said.

He said the armed forces and the police force "have never been as professional as they are now."

Financial markets have paid little heed to the recent events and Filipinos seem more focused on the upcoming Christmas holidays than on political intrigue.

Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada were ousted in "people power" uprisings backed by the military and there have been a dozen coup attempts since 1986.

Mrs. Arroyo, who rose from vice president in 2001 when Estrada was overthrown, put down a one-day mutiny by about 300 soldiers in July 2003 and weathered an attempt to impeach her in Congress in September over the vote-rigging and graft allegations.

In a statement last Wednesday, Abat declared "the existence of a revolutionary transition government and the formation of a transition government council to administer the affairs of government."

"This is a peaceful takeover of power by people motivated by nothing else but sense of patriotism," he said, urging the military and police to protect the people’s sovereign will.

He said a recent "congress" of 300 delegates of his supporters nationwide had mandated him to "form a government to confront this crisis that we are in now."

In a crackdown on Abat’s supporters, Philippine Army commander Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon last Wednesday ordered the retired general’s son, Col. Victor Abat, relieved as deputy commander of the 702nd Brigade based in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija, for allegedly "enjoining others to join destabilization moves" via phone text messages.

Abat’s son-in-law, Chief Superintendent Jaime Caringal, has denied allegations he was planning to join a coup plot, saying he continues to support the chain of command.

Caringal heads the Philippine National Police’s Civil Security Group based at Camp Crame in Quezon City.

The retired general’s younger brother, a Marine colonel, was also removed from duty.

Esperon said Colonel Abat will still undergo investigation and be confined to headquarters although he had already apologized for his actions.

"Only after that shall we decide whether he will be given another assignment equivalent to his current position or form where he was relieved," Esperon said. "But he has all the chances if he abides by the chain of command and makes up for his lapse in encouraging people to join the destabilization."

The investigation would take about a week. "He has apologized and he has promised to do his best to contribute to mission accomplishment," Esperon said.
‘Listen to the message’
Abat’s family rallied behind the retired general yesterday, appealing to the public to listen to the point he was trying to make.

"Our family stands solidly behind General Abat. At his age, we are mighty proud of the kind of courage and integrity that he has considerably shown in the face of all risks, in fiercely fighting for what he believes in," the Abat family said in a statement issued to the media.

No amount of harassment and ridicule would break the old soldier’s will and principles, they said.

"Sorry to the people who ridicule and belittle this person. Here is one man, head unbowed, whose main advocacy is only good for what is right, what is just… Whatever they do will not deter him at all to pursue his good cause."

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan disagreed with the charges filed against Abat.

"The case should be dismissed as it violates Abat’s right to free speech protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court in a string of cases has repeatedly ruled that free speech could only be curtailed if there exists a clear and present danger to the state that is sought to be prevented," said Pangilinan, a lawyer.

"Obviously there is no clear and present danger to the state when an 80-year-old soldier proclaims himself president of the Philippines inside a country club. Even a freshman law student knows that the case should be thrown out."

Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., whose father served as defense secretary before being elected president and is known for his dedication to public service, said Abat should not be dismissed simply as a nuisance.

"Abat, to me, simply has shown the frustration and despair and hopelessness" of Filipinos with the government, he said.

In an April 30 press conference held at Club Filipino, where Corazon Aquino was sworn in as president in February 1986 after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, Abat called for a "revolutionary transition government" to replace Mrs. Arroyo to "reform the system of governance and restore morality in political leadership and in the culture of the Filipino people."

He said there was a "need for a revolutionary transition with a firm but benevolent and decisive leadership, to enable us to develop discipline, institute authoritative governance and install the foundation of a strong nation."

In a statement issued to the media when he was taken in for questioning by the police last Thursday, Abat said: "After all the toil and sacrifices for the country that I have gone through, I should be living now a life of peace and quiet. But I am not. Indeed, I find it a shame that given the ills and misrule that bedevil our beloved country, none of our young generation of leaders would stand up and take the lead to do something." — With Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude, Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte Felipe, AP

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