Abducted activists denounce oral defamation charges vs them

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Abducted activists denounce oral defamation charges vs them
Environmental activists Jhed Tamano (L) and Jonila Castro (C) speak with media representatives at the Commission of Human Rights, in Quezon on September 19, 2023
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — The state prosecutors’ move to indict two environmental defenders for oral defamation is tantamount to judicial harassment and an attack on freedom of expression, the activists and their supporters stressed Tuesday. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended the filing of separate grave oral defamation charges against Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, the anti-reclamation activists who accused the military of abducting them at a press conference hosted by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in September last year. 

If found guilty, the two could face a maximum of six-month imprisonment. 

“Malinaw para sa amin na ang mga kasong ipinataw ay harassment para manira ng moral, manakot sa mga gustong lumaban para sa karapatan, at magpatahimik,” Castro and Tamano said in a joint statement. 

(It is clear to us that the charges are forms of harassment to destroy our morale, intimidate those who fight for their rights, and silence dissent.)

In a resolution penned by Senior Assistant Prosecutor Arnold Magpantay, the DOJ said it found probable cause to indict Castro and Tamano for issuing inconsistent statements at the press conference and in their signed affidavits. 

Castro and Tamano were expected to be presented as rebel returnees at a press conference by the military and the NTF-ELCAC on September 19, more than two weeks after they had been taken by armed men in Orion, Bataan on the evening of September 2. 

But the pair went off script, accusing the military of abducting them and countering the government’s claim that they voluntarily surrendered to authorities. 

The DOJ considered the statements of Castro and Tamano to be serious slander as “they consciously, intentionally and on purpose” waited for the press conference to express their grievances. 

State prosecutors, however, dismissed the perjury complaint filed by Lt. Col. Ronnel dela Cruz, commander of the Philippine Army’s 70th Infantry Battalion. 

‘Persecuted for telling the truth’

Castro and Tamano said in Filipino that Magpantay “ignored the fact that we were abducted by the military, taken to a safehouse, and subjected to psychological torture to coerce us into adopting the story concocted by an NTF-ELCAC agent.”

“Itinuring niya ang banta sa aming buhay bilang pawang “imahinasyon” lamang. Ang intensyon namin na paglalantad ng katotohanan ay pinalabas na nagmula sa isang “deep-rooted motive” na siraan at ipahiya ang AFP,” the activists said. 

(He considered the threat to our lives as mere “imagination.” Our intention to expose the truth was portrayed as stemming from a “deep-rooted motive” to discredit and embarrass the AFP.)

In a statement, rights group Karapatan said the DOJ resolution “is an attack on freedom of expression in the country, where victims of rights violations are persecuted for speaking the truth.”

Disheartened that authorities have become “instruments of oppression and falsehood,” Castro and Tamano called on the justice department to reconsider their case

The activists and their supporters also appealed to the Supreme Court to grant their petition for a writ of amparo and habeas data with prayer for protection. The petition also seeks to declare the NTF-ELCAC and the military as “responsible and accountable” for their enforced disappearance and illegal detention.

Authorities deny involvement in the abduction of Castro and Tamano.

According to monitoring by Karapatan, there are 11 victims of enforced disappearances under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Despite the DOJ recommendation, the young environmentalists remain defiant. 

“Lalo itong dahilan upang patuloy na makibaka para sa karapatan, hustisya, at kalayaan na makakamit lamang sa ating sama-samang pagkilos para sa pundamental na pagbabago ng lipunan,” they said.

(This further strengthens our resolve to continue fighting for rights, justice, and freedom, which can only be achieved through collective action for fundamental societal change.) — with report from The STAR/Daphne Galvez

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