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BACOLOD CITY - Priests and Church workers threw their support behind a detained pastoral worker who was nabbed by police intelligence operatives last month for the alleged murder of an Army lieutenant in 2010 as they called the “false accusations” part of a campaign to “persecute” those working for the poor.
“This is not only harassment, this is persecution,” Negros priest Ireneo Gordoncillo said during the launching of the Free Cheche Movement that drew friends and fellow workers of detained Church worker Aniceta Rojo, who is also facing robbery-in-band and arson charges, all filed by the military.
Rojo and more than 50 others, a significant number of them leaders of open mass organizations and alliances, were charged for the death of Lt. Archie Polenzo last March 7, 2010 in Sitio Aluyan in the village of Caduhaan, Cadiz City, during an encounter between members of the New People’s Army and soldiers under the 62nd Infantry Battalion led by Polenzo.
She is also co-accused with the same set of persons in a case for arson as a result of the raid by alleged members of the NPA on a fishpond owned by Sagay Agro Industrial Corporation and Sagay Aqua Ventures Corporation last July 16, 2011 during which firearms were reported to have been carted away by the guerrillas.
Rojo is also facing a case for arson over the burning of the transloading station of Victorias Milling Company in the village of San Jose, Toboso town last November 17, 2008.
'Abuse of power'
“I was shocked and I felt angry with the way she was arrested,” Jacob Segurola, parish priest of the San Vicente Ferrer Parish in La Granja village, La Carlota City said over the arrest of Rojo, who said she was not shown any arrest warrant and was dragged out of the convent of a church in nearby Bago City last December 7, 2012.
“It showed abuse of power and there was simply no respect for the rights of those who are accused,” he added as he pointed out that it is the Church’s responsibility to “defend and protect” Rojo and those like her who are being harassed as they work to uplift the lives of the poor.
Segurola and Gordoncillo, former national chair of the Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights (Karapatan), were joined by at least 10 Church workers from nearby towns and cities who represented former chapters of the Basic Christian Community-Community Organizing, one of the Church-based organizations that Rojo used to work for.
Gordoncillo, who heads the Bacolod Diocese’ Diocesan Pastoral Center, also noted that Rojo’s case is similar to the charges being filed against human rights advocates and activists across the country. He said this, coupled with extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances, is part of the legal offensive.
The courts, he added, are being used to harass them because it is clear that the charges will not actually prosper. However, because the justice system is slow, the suffering of those who are imprisoned becomes worse.
It is clear that the courts are being used by the military; it is easy for the accused to prove their innocence but the problem is that you are being denied the opportunity to do so, Gordoncillo added.
Army Col. Oscar Lactao, commanding officer of the Army’s 303rd Infantry Brigade, denied the claims of Gordoncillo and said that they are not using the courts to run after activists.
“The courts are independent institutions of our justice system; let us not undermine it as it is a vital institution in a democratic society,” Lactao, told InterAksyon.com.
‘Hope, not fear’
“Hope, not fear,” was one of the slogans printed on banners that were hung during the news conference, a call taken from the letter of Rojo to friends and written from the Cadiz City Bureau of Jail Management and Penology prison where she is detained.
Rojo’s husband, Rodel, a visual artist, designed the logo of the movement, a sketch of a faceless woman with chains on her wrists holding a baby.
Jessie Arcillas, a co-worker of Rojo at the BCC, said her arrest only shows that the church is no longer a “sanctuary and can be violated anytime” by state agents, especially those who are taking part in counter-insurgency operations.
Who is Cheche
"We believe…that Cheche (Rojo’s nickname) is innocent of the charges being leveled against her by the Philippine Army for the death of one of its lieutenants in 2010,” a statement in Ilonggo signed by the Church workers and read by Arcillas during the news conference said, adding that the charges against her are “without merit and are meant to harass people like her who work for genuine emancipation and true justice and peace.”
They also outlined the work of Rojo since 1989, during which she first worked with the research, documentation, and programs desk of the Institute on Socio-Pastroal Concerns of the Bacolod Diocese, after which she became an organizer of the BCC in 1992 and eventually became in charge of the BCC International Solidarity Work desk.
She later became a bookkeeper for the Center for People’s Resources in 2004 and then a volunteer worker and counselor for the violence against women program of the General Alliance Binding Women for Reform, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action (Gabriela), and administrative officer of the Negros Rural Assistance Program Incorporated.
She is also a mother to five children, one of them adopted, and has been living with her family in the village of Sum-ag here.
Arcillas, who now works as an organizer for a labor assistance center, said the arrest of Rojo will not affect their morale as he vowed to continue the work they have started with the BCC.
“We will continue to serve, the fear is there but we have to face it,” he said in the vernacular.
Status of cases
Gordoncillo said Rojo had never been running away from the cases against her, contrary to claims that she had not been answering the accusations.
In the arson charge, for instance, Rojo filed a counter-affidavit Negros Occidental Assistant Provincial Prosecutor Hernane Jardeleza two years ago although Rojo was identified in the complaint as “Aniceto” and not as “Anecita.”
Jardeleza has yet to issue a resolution, however.
The case is currently pending before the San Carlos Regional Trial Court Branch 59 under Judge Katherine Go.
Rojo’s lawyers had also filed a motion to quash before Judge Renato Muñez of the Cadiz City RTC Branch 60 while she has yet to receive a subpoena from Sagay City Acting Prosecutor Ronald Yngson who had already filed the information with the same sala.
Rojo’s daughter, Roan, said the family has also written Justice Secretary Leila De Lima through City Vice Mayor Jude Thaddeus Sayson to inquire about the status of cases and to ask for a reinvestigation; they were told that the cases are already before the courts and the DOJ cannot do anything about it anymore.
“We did engage them in the legal process but it is taking too long,” Gordoncillo said.
Roan’s husband, Christian, secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Negros, was also named by confessed rebel Freddie Clerigo Sanchez as one of the persons who ordered the killing of Polenzo but he was not included in the charge sheet.
However long it takes, the truth will eventually be known, “we shall not step back and we shall stand firm because you cannot imprison truth nor lock it up in a cell,” Segurola added.
Reaction of officials
Interaksyon.com sought the reaction of Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. and Vice Governor Genaro Alvare, Jr. and some congressmen on the charges filed against Rojo and other activist leaders in the province but only two answered.
“It’s not new, ever since, (the filing of charges) has always been used as a ‘stick’ against progressives,” provincial Board Member Dino Yulo representing the fifth district said.
In Bacolod City, Councilor El Cid Familiaran said the filing of charges could be used during the elections against activist organizations and partylists.
“If (the military doesn’t) have any concrete or valid evidence then that is harassment especially with the coming election; our priests and lawyers will not issue that kind of statement if it is not alarming, especially when our social activists cannot express their sentiments toward our government,” he said.