By KIMBERLIE NGABIT QUITASOL
BAGUIO CITY — After voluntarily submitting herself to court and almost a year of incarceration, the court acquitted Rachel Mariano, a community health and human rights activist of murder and frustrated murder charges filed by the military.
“Wherefore, premises considered this court hereby renders a verdict of acquittal in favor of accused Rachel Mariano in all these cases based on reasonable doubt,” wrote Judge Mario Anacleto Bañez of Branch 25 of the Regional Trial Court in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur in his decision signed on August 16 and promulgated today, September 4.
The court said it is “not morally convinced” of Mariano’s guilt and “found that evidences leveled against her are insufficient and doubtful to sustain [a guilty] verdict.”
The 81st IB accused Mariano with several others of being among New People’s Army (NPA) rebels who attacked and killed their soldiers in Patiacan, Quirino, Ilocos Sur on October 15, 2017. The army presented soldiers who survived the attack as witnesses, saying they saw Mariano firing at them.
However, Bañez noted, in his decision, the inconsistent testimonies of the army witnesses.
He said that one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Sgt. Ronnie Lontoc failed to mention a female assailant in his earlier affidavit and only added Mariano months after the incident.
“From the procession witnesses’ account, even the number of the persons who fired at them was not established. This court submits that if the number of those persons who shot at them was not even establish with relative certainty, the process of identification of those persons would even be more unreliable,” underscored the magistrate.
The judge pointed that retraction of the statement of witnesses’ on the participation of a certain Hector Wandas, which the army personnel accused in their earlier affidavits as being one of the perpetrators compounded the “unreliability of identification of accused Rachel Mariano.”
Activist not NPA
Bañez acknowledged that pieces of evidence provided by the defense proved her work as an “activist working on the field of health as one of man’s basic rights.” However, he pointed out that this does not make Mariano a member of the NPA.
“Her being an activist may have subjected her to suspicions of involvement in some subversive activities. But it has been a long-standing principle that suspicions, however strong, cannot equate with the quantum of proof required by law to support a conviction,” said the decision.
On a Facebook post, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) and the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) commended the court’s decision. The groups said the acquittal of Mariano manifested the legitimacy of the work of activists and development workers. They also reiterated their call to release all political prisoners and dismiss the trumped-up cases filed against activists.
Mariano submitted herself to court on September 18, 2018, and committed to the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail in Bantay while the hearing of her case was ongoing.
Before her incarceration, Mariano has been working for appropriate, accessible and free health services for all. She also actively campaigned to end the rampant large-scale mining in Cordillera.
For lawyer Charlie Juloya, legal counsel of Mariano, the decision practically implied that “the witnesses were lying.”
“We were telling the truth so indeed the truth shall set you free,” he said.
According to him, what happened to Mariano is part of the campaign to suppress dissent.
He also expressed concern about the possibility that attacks against activists will further escalate to other and more violent means “now that attackers are losing the legal battle.”
Juloya also raised the alarm of the present human right situation in the north.
“The attacks against farmers in Cagayan Valley, the filing of false charges and arrests here in Ilocos, the situation here in the north is alarming and even comparable to what is happening in Mindanao and Visayas,” he said.
A veteran human rights lawyer, Juloya handled fabricated charges against activists and noted the similarity that subjects of such ordeal are the visible and outspoken activists because they are easier to identify and profile. However, unlike before, where the military just files charges and never shows up in court, now the military participates in court proceedings even bring their witnesses.
Juloya said that while the law is being used against the people, the people can still maximize the law. He said that Mariano could opt to file civil cases for damages against the witnesses.
Still under treat
Before this case, the 81st IB implicated and filed charges against Mariano for two gun battles between its troops and communist rebels. These are the 10 counts of attempted homicide related to a firefight that occurred in Salcedo, Ilocos Sur on July 22, 2017, and 4 counts of attempted and frustrated homicide related to the August 4, 2017 clash in Sigay, Ilocos Sur. The Alfredo Cezar, Jr. Command-NPA Ilocos Sur denied that any of their units figured in a firefight in Sigay.
According to a factsheet provided by CHRA, Mariano and four of her co-accused voluntarily submitted themselves and posted bail for the two cases on February 9, 2018, granting them their temporary freedom.
The hearing of the case for the Salcedo clash finally started on May 25 this year after several postponements. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has yet to decide on the motion to transfer the venue of the hearing filed by the defense before the case can proceed.
Included in the cases are women activists Sarah Alikes-Abellon, Sherry Mae Soledad, Joanne Villanueva, and Asia Gepte. Except for Gepte, who is from the National Capital Region, the other accused are all members and staff of Baguio-based people’s organizations and non-government institutions. # nordis.net