Agusan del Norte mayor, ex-police chief guilty over violent protest dispersal
MANILA, Philippines – An Agusan del Norte town mayor and his former local police chief were found guilty of using unnecessary force that led to a violent dispersal of an anti-mining protest in 2006.
The Sandiganbayan 7th Division convicted incumbent Tubay Mayor Fidel Garcia and former municipal police chief Benny Esparagoza of grave coercion, 3 counts of slight physical injuries, unlawful dissolution of a public assembly, and violation of the Public Assembly Act of 1985.
The charges stemmed from an August 2006 incident where state agents used "unnecessary" force to disperse a prayer rally against mining, attended by civilians and environmental advocates.
The actions taken by the officials included using a water cannon against the protesters, which was said to be ordered by Esparagoza, according to the testimony of former Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Caraga head investigator Seldio Pilongo.
The CHR had conducted its own investigation in the aftermath of the dispersal.
According to the court, the protesters were deprived of their constitutional right to assembly.
"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, rejecting the defense claim that the protesters were infiltrated by members of the communist New People's Army.
The court sentenced Garcia and Esparagoza to 6 months in jail for using a water cannon against protesters, 4 months and 21 days for using force, 2 months and a day for using "violence, threat, or intimidation," and 11 days for each count of slight physical injuries.
The court also dismissed a claim by defendants that the dispersal was to clear a public road, pointing out that the protest was held on private 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 Sandiganbayan said. – Rappler.com