Lawyers’ group condemns lawsuit filed vs 2 Surigao City councilors

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews / 24 Oct) – The Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) has condemned the slapping of an illegal assembly case against two city councilors here and three others in relation to their participation of the anti-pork barrel rally held last Sept. 21.

The city councilors charged for violating a city ordinance that designates where rallies are to be held are Atty. Jose V. Begil Jr. and Engr. Baltazar C. Abian.

The others charged are Fernando A. Almeda Jr., founder and president of Surigaonon Heritage Center and chairperson of Coalition of Surigaonons for Good Governance-Transparency and Accountability; Edgar Canda, chairperson of Bayan Muna-Surigao del Norte Chapter; and Rotchel Escuatro, officer of Karapatan Surigao del Norte.

Begil is currently the UPLM’s vice chair for external affairs.

The five, together with leaders and members of progressive organizations, were among those who staged a protest rally across the public market at the intersection of Borromeo and Sarvida streets to mark the 41st anniversary of Martial Law.

The protesters also signed a petition asking the Ombudsman to act on the complaint for plunder against Surigao del Norte Rep. Francisco Matugas, and graft cases against Surigao del Norte Governor Sol F. Matugas and Surigao City Mayor Ernesto T. Matugas.

The city ordinance is based on Batas Pambansa 880, passed by the Batasan Pambansa during Martial Law under ousted President Ferdinand Marcos that requires rallyists to first obtain a permit for their activity. UPLM chairperson Emeliano R. Deleverio said the law is an archaic, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic law that was imposed by the Marcos dictatorship and was never repealed by the first Aquino administration until today.

“Local Marcos wannabees like Mayor Ernesto Matugas and other local government executives are invoking this Draconian law to guard their own fiefdoms and lash back at his political adversaries,” Deleverio said in the UPLM’s press statement sent to MindaNews.

The group said Surigao City Mayor Ernesto Matugas did not issue a permit to use the public park for which protesters earlier applied.

“The illegal assembly case against Begil, Abian, Canda and two other companions is the most recent in a looming trend of harassment against human rights lawyers and vocal critics to ‘Pork King’ Benigno Aquino III and the whole corrupt system of bureaucrat capitalism,” Daleverio said.

UPLM calls for the immediate withdrawal of all charges against Begil and his co-accused. UPLM also demands that the authorities respect the rights and duties of human rights lawyers to represent and defend the people’s organizations that they are serving.

When sought for comment, the mayor was quick to respond that he is not behind the filing of the case against the protesters.

“I never instructed the chief of police to file a case against the rallyists,” he said in a text message Wednesday afternoon. Matugas said it was the chief of police who filed the case.

But Supt. Joseph R. Nohara, the city police chief, did not comment on the issue.

Begil said the case is still pending at the Surigao City Prosecutor’s Office. He added they are waiting for the subpoena to be sent by the prosecutor’s office.

City Ordinance Number 245, passed in 2006, designates the Luneta Park and City Boulevard as “Freedom Parks where people may congregate, peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” It was based on Batas Pambansa 880 or the Public Assembly Act of 1985.

The ordinance carries no penal clause though.

“Since the ordinance has no penalty, they can’t be held liable,” Vice Mayor Danilo C. Menor, a lawyer himself, said. He was a former fiscal in this city, then became councilor. He was the brainchild of the city ordinance in question.

“The Aquino government should cease from filing lawsuits against the public’s participation in legitimate issues. The state should junk BP 880 and all repressive laws, and respect the constitutional rights of the people to peaceably assemble and seek redress for their grievances. Most importantly, President Benigno Aquino III should abolish the pork barrel system instead of trying to jail the people and their defenders,” Deleverio said.