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Human Rights Watch 'alarmed' by Celdran conviction for 'Damaso' stunt

File photo of Carlos Celdran from
The online news portal of TV5

(UPDATED - 5:20 p.m.) MANILA, Philippines – The regional office of Human Rights Watch on Monday expressed alarm over a reported decision by a Manila court convicting blogger, heritage-tourism celebrity  and reproductive health advocate Carlos Celdran of “offending religious feelings” for a stunt he pulled over a year ago at the Manila Cathedral.

“We are alarmed by the court’s decision today finding reproductive health advocate Carlos Celdran guilty of ‘offending religious feelings’ and sentencing him to a maximum of one year in prison,” said HRW’s Asia Researcher Carlos Conde in a statement.

“This is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy. This verdict should be reversed. Nobody should be jailed for voicing out an opinion or position, especially on a subject that concerns the lives of millions of Filipino women and mothers,” added Conde.

The case stemmed from Celdran’s act of wearing a Spanish-era costume, and disrupting a Eucharistic celebration in church, tagging Filipino bishops like “Padre Damaso,” the hated friar in the Rizal novel. Celdran assailed the bishops’ strong stance against the then-pending reproductive health bill, saying the men in robes should not terrorize the faithful.

He was arrested and briefly detained, and a case was later filed against him based on an old provision against “offending religious feelings” in the Revised Penal Code.

“The government should ensure that pro-reproductive rights activists are not targeted using such archaic provisions of the Philippines’ Revised Penal Code. This case shows the potential for misuse and malicious prosecution and hence the need for urgent reform to this provision of the code,” said Conde.

Chilling effect

In a phone interview with Monday afternoon, Celdran said he would appeal the case and "fight to the very end." 

He said the case would have a "chilling effect" on people who are critical of their religion's beliefs and practices. 

"The issue is bigger than me now...It's about religion. Anything that one does that might be offending to his or her own religion could put him or her in jail. This is a bad precedent," said Celdran. 

He said the issue is also about freedom of expression. "It is for us to protect our freedom of speech and shield ourselves from threats to our freedoms not only by the Church but by other powerful entities, as well."