Army readies perjury raps; activists’ allies cry coercion
MANILA, Philippines — With both accuser and accused sticking to their respective stories, the filing of charges and countercharges could be the next development in the case of environmental activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano who claimed they were abducted by the military and then forced into signing affidavits of surrender after supposedly leaving the communist movement.
Dino de Leon, the lawyer of Castro and Tamano, told the Inquirer on Wednesday that they were “prepared to protect” the two activists amid the Department of National Defense’s (DND) threat to charge them with perjury. He added that they would “hold to account those who [would] file false charges against them.”
At a press briefing organized by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) on Tuesday, hours before they were reunited with their families, both women accused the military of kidnapping them in Orion, Bataan province, on Sept. 2.
“The DND should not be peddling lies and tolerating those among its ranks who are ruining the reputation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” De Leon said. “Neither should the department be engaged in cover-ups, and it should not stick with the contrived stories of its erring members.”
According to the lawyer, they were considering charges against the NTF-Elcac for its role in his clients’ forced disappearance and for coercing them to sign affidavits under duress.
“You’ve seen the resolve of [our] clients, their courage,” he said. “We leave it up to them to decide what course of action they want to take from here on.”
While De Leon refused to say what happened to Castro and Tamano while they were in military custody, he pointed out that their stories confirmed the findings of an initial fact-finding mission by the rights group Karapatan which said the activists may have been abducted by state forces.
House floor tussle
During plenary debates on the DND’s proposed 2024 budget at the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Negros Occidental Rep. Mercedez Alvarez said the AFP was considering suing Castro and Tamano.
But Alvarez, the sponsor for the department’s budget, did not give other details, prompting Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel to interpellate her.
“Mr. Speaker, we are so shocked with that kind of response from the AFP. What is the basis for them to file cases against the two brave women whom they abducted and illegally detained in a military camp?” he asked.
Manuel said that Castro and Tamano were “coerced” and forced to sign the affidavits which claimed they “voluntarily surrendered” to authorities.
Alvarez insisted that there were witnesses during the signing, saying, “The PAO [Public Attorney’s Office] lawyers were there, the stepfather of one of the ladies were there, and they were even asked if they were coerced into signing by her stepfather, and she denied being coerced, Mr. Speaker.”
“Again, there are witnesses, Mr. Speaker. They made a sworn statement, which of course if you made a sworn statement and [if] you recant it, you will be submitted to perjury charges if needed,” she added.
This was also the position of National Security Council Assistant Director General and spokesperson Jonathan Malaya who announced last week that Castro and Tamano were “safe and sound” in government custody after yielding to authorities.
“If it is proven that they executed this [affidavit] falsely, that what they were saying is correct, they can be open to perjury charges,” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel on Wednesday.
Malaya reiterated that they were standing by the military and police accounts that both women gave themselves up voluntarily to the 70th Infantry Battalion (IB) in Bulacan province after they were reported missing.
“The 70th IB in good faith accepted them because we have a program for rebel surrenderees,” he said.
According to Malaya, they would “slowly expose all of the information we have” on the two activists.
“Why would the military abduct them and present them to the media? It doesn’t make sense. But we are unfazed. We will continue to fight for the truth,” he said.
The Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division (ID) said in a statement that it was also considering filing “appropriate criminal charges” against Castro and Tamano.
The military unit based in Palayan City, Nueva Ecija province, conducts anti-communist operations in Central Luzon and is under the 70th IB based in Doña Remedios Trinidad, Bulacan, which took custody of the two women after their supposed surrender.
The 7th ID said that it was sticking to its report that the activists voluntarily turned themselves in.
It stressed that Tamano categorically said in her affidavit that she was a member of Kabataang Makabayan, an underground youth organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Environmental and rights groups, however, said the 22-year-old Tamano is a coordinator for the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum’s Community and Church Program for Manila Bay, while 21-year-old Castro is a community organizer for Akap-Ka Manila Bay.
At the time of their disappearance, both were preparing for relief operations in Bataan where coastal towns are threatened by reclamation projects.