CHR wins vs mayor, police official over 2006 mining protest dispersal

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    IT took 13 years but an investigation by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) into the violent dispersal of an anti-mining protest in Tubay, Agusan del Norte in 2006 has resulted in the conviction of a municipal mayor and the town’s former police chief in multiple criminal charges.

    In an 84-page decision issued last October 25, the Sandiganbayan Seventh Division found Tubay mayor Fidel Garcia and former municipal PNP chief Benny C. Esparagoza guilty of grave coercion, three counts of slight physical injuries, violation of Public Assembly Act of 1985 (Batasang Pambansa 880), and unlawful dissolution of a public assembly.

    Both were sentenced to jail terms of six months for bombarding the protesters with a water cannon; four months and 21 days for the use of force to disperse a peaceful rally; two months and one day for employing “violence, threat or intimidation;” and 11 days for each count of slight physical injuries penalized under Article 266 of the Revised Penal Code.

    Two other police officers and two fire officers were acquitted of all charges for lack of evidence on their guilt as the court noted that they simply acted on instruction.

    Prosecutors said the accused officials used unnecessary force to break up a group of civilians and environmental protection advocates, including a local priest, who were holding a prayer rally against mining on August 6, 2006.

    While the defendants claimed that they were only doing their jobs to keep a public road open, the court pointed out that the protest was held on private land and did not present a threat to any person or property.

    “Flowing from the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, which fundamental right enjoys primacy in the realm of constitutional protection… the use of water cannons to disperse or dissolve peaceful public assemblies … requires as a condition precedent that the assembly is attended by violence or destruction of property,” the court said.

    Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores C. Gomez-Estoesta penned the decision with Associate Justices Zaldy V. Trespeses and Georgina D. Hidalgo concurring.

    The court likewise gave no credence to the defense claim that the municipal police office acted on information that the protesters have been infiltrated by members of the New People’s Army and are planning to attack the local police station and burn the mining equipment of SR Metals.

    It noted that PCol. Jerome Pagaragan, then Agusan del Norte PNP provincial director, admitted in his testimony that he could not recall of any intelligence report of possible NPA attack.

    “It was a deprivation of the constitutional rights of the assembly…that they had to endure the full blast of the water cannon…when all they did was to hold a rally not characterized by violence. Absent any violence or destruction of property, threatened or actual, there was no valid justification for the firing of the water turret at the rally,” the Sandiganbayan said.