9 ex-Socorro members in IACAT custody

Cecille Suerte Felipe - The Philippine Star
9 ex-Socorro members in IACAT custody
Senator. Risa Hontiveros files a resolution seeking to investigate the sexual violence, child abuse and forced marriage perpetuated by an alleged cult.
Senator. Risa Hontiveros

MANILA, Philippines — Nine former members, all minors, of the Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), which senators described as a “cult,” are now in the protective custody of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), Sen. Risa Hontiveros said yesterday.

Hontiveros said aside from the minors, the IACAT, chaired by Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla of the Department of Justice (DOJ), has also taken into custody four adults as “various circumstances warrant the immediate protective custody of the subject trafficking victims.”

The senator expressed optimism that the former SBSI members, including minors, will soon tell the truth and collaborate on the testimony of previous resource persons, who revealed the violations and abuses of the SBSI leaders.

“The DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) and the IACAT decided to keep in their custody the minor and the adult members of SBSI,” Hontiveros said in a radio interview over dzBB.

“Hopefully at the next hearing, they (parents of the former SBSI minors) will say (the truth). Because at the first hearing they objected to the protective custody of their children by the mayor and municipal social works office. I hope they would side with their children and against the cult leaders,” Hontiveros added in Filipino.

During Thursday’s public hearing of the Senate joint committees on women and children and on public order, several witnesses exposed the abuses of the SBSI leaders, including forced marriages, rape of minors and forced labor.

SBSI leader Jey Rence Quilario – dubbed as cult leader “Senior Agila” – denied the allegations of their former members.

Hontiveros also showed Remulla’s letter to DSWD Secretary Rex Gatchalian, endorsing the protective custody of the nine former SBSI members including five minors who are now with the IACAT.

Remulla expressed concerns about the three children that top officials of SBSI attempted to present as their witnesses in the joint committee hearing, and the other children and adults rescued from SBSI presently under the custody of regional or local social welfare offices.

“There is very strong evidence that these children and adults are victims of human trafficking, forced labor, forced marriage, and other forms of child abuse committed by key officials of SBSI. Thus, the DOJ, as the chairperson of the IACAT, formally endorses the protective custody of the individuals,” Remulla noted.

Remulla said taking custody of the children and adults is on the basis of Section 7(k) of Republic Act No. 11862 or the Expanded Anti-Trafficking Act of 2022, and its Implementing Rules and Regulations. The two-page letter included the names of the minors.

“Immediate Protection of Trafficking Victims, where warranted. Trafficking victims shall immediately be placed under the protective custody of the DSWD, pursuant to Republic Act No. 7610, otherwise known as the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act,” he noted.

Remulla said various circumstances warrant the immediate protective custody of the subject trafficking victims, such as, but not limited to their compelling testimonies and the pending preliminary investigation against several SBSI officials for various crimes including human trafficking.

He added that the parallel investigation by the Commission on Human Rights on human rights violations by SBSI, and the failure of key officials of SBSI to properly respond to the allegations against them during the joint committee hearing resulted in their being cited for contempt and subsequent detention in the Senate.

“May we also request that you allow the subject trafficking victims to extend

duration of their stay in any of your facilities in the National Capital Region for purposes of the pending preliminary investigation in the DOJ,” Remulla added.

Good development

Hontiveros described as a good development the IACAT taking custody of the former SBSI members, who indicated intentions to tell their experiences with the group.

She also noted that since the Senate public hearing was livestreamed, other former members indicated their intention to testify at the next Senate hearing.

“Some have said they will testify now that they have the courage to speak,” she said.

“The children are victims of trafficking, that is why they are under custody. Their innocence was exploited, as well as the family’s status as beneficiaries of various government programs,” Hontiveros added.

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