Two of the charges against Lumad advocate Pastor Benjie Gomez were already filed against him in 2014.
Pastor Benjie Gomez, Lumad advocate and father of UPLB student Lennin Gomez, was detained by authorities after a Sunday worship in Zamboanga del Norte last June 6.
In an exclusive interview with the Perspective, Lennin, his daughter, recounted that around ten policemen came to the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) church in Mutia, Zamboanga del Norte. Lennin further told the publication that not all of his father’s arrestors were uniformed.
“May iba na hindi naka-uniporme, naka-civilian lang, tapos no’ng dumating sila sa Mutia – sa assignment ni tatay [Pastor Gomez] na church sa UCCP – mga umaga, pero hinintay pa nila na matapos yung worship service ni tatay around 12 noon [bago nila siya inaresto],” Lennin said.
According to Lennin, the arrest warrant states that Pastor Gomez and the other accused individuals (whose names she did not mention) launched an attack against a Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGO) member on October 15, 2012.
Lennin added that the warrant was signed back in 2019 by then-Zamboanga del Norte Judge Reymar Lacaya. The said magistrate, however, was killed on May 9, 2019 – a murder allegedly plotted by retired judge Oscar Tomarong.
Meanwhile, after the policemen presented and read the arrest warrant, they immediately brought Pastor Gomez to Mutia Police Station. This was despite the appeal of the church members to allow Pastor Gomez to eat his lunch, as the Leon Postigo Municipal Police Station is very distant from Mutia, where Pastor Gomez was arrested.
“Sabi ng church member, ‘Pakainin niyo muna si pastor,’ pero sabi nila [mga pulis], ‘Wag na, ‘wag na yan pakainin, bakit may special treatment? Bakit papakinin pa? Dadalhin na namin agad siya doon.’ Isasakay raw nila agad sa police car,” Lennin shared.
Upon arriving at the police station, companions of Pastor Gomez made one more request for his safety.
“Sinabi pa namin na ipa-blotter muna yung mga pangalan [ng mga pulis], kasi nga baka kung ano mangyari kay tatay kung dadalhin agad nila,” Lennin said, adding that the police assured them that they will list down the names of the arrestors. But they would soon know that this assurance would be for naught.
“Nalaman lang namin na ‘di pala nilagay yung mga pangalan, sinabi lang nila na [ililista nila yung mga pangalan], pero di talaga [nila] ginawa,” Lennin said, expressing utmost worry especially regarding the identity of the non-uniformed arrestors.
Pastor Gomez is currently in Leon Postigo Municipal Police Station for trumped-up murder charges. According to Lennin, 14 days after undergoing a swab test, Pastor Gomez is set to be transferred to Zamboanga del Norte District Jail in Bitoon, Sindangan, where he was first detained in 2014.
Pastor Gomez was last arrested on July 27, 2014 while en route to a church in Poblacion La Libertad, Zamboanga del Norte.
As if déjà vu, Lennin said that much like this latest incident, Pastor Gomez was also arrested on a Sunday. He was riding his motorcycle to fetch his wife and son when he was illegally arrested.
“Hinuli siya [Pastor Gomez] ng mga hindi naka-uniporme, mga naka-sibilyan na mga sundalo,” Lennin said of the 2014 incident. According to human rights alliance Karapatan, Pastor Gomez was in fact “abducted by hooded men”.
A report by UCCP says that Pastor Gomez’s charges in 2014 involved one count of murder and two counts of frustrated murder. He was implicated by 1Lt. Arlene Quijano Palafox, an officer of the 10th Infantry Battalion, for the murder of Cpl. Marwin D. Ybanez in a crossfire between the Philippine Army and New People’s Army (NPA) on December 3, 2012 – charges that were later junked in 2015 due to lack of evidence.
Two of the seven-year old charges are the same ones that Pastor Gomez is currently facing, now with a different arrest warrant.
“Ang mga pangalan nila, parang naka-copy paste lang. Same lang din yung mga listahan ng mga taong inakusahan [noong 2014]. Bali iba lang yung nangyari, pero yung mga pangalan, same lang,” Lennin said.
Two of the 2014 charges came with one new allegation.
“Doon sa naka-warrant sa kaniya na kaso [ngayon], isa pa doon ay hindi pa talaga na-develop na kaso noong 2014, ngayon pa lang siya naging kaso talaga […] Yun yung [isa sa] may warrant ngayon,” Lennin said.
However, those two charges that were recently filed again have actually been mentioned in a 2015 dismissal order.
“Yung prosecutor na nagha-handle ng kaso niya [ngayon], hindi masyadong binasa yung [dismissal order] before. Hindi niya nakita na sinali na pala [sa dismissal order] yung [dalawang] kaso noon na may warrant ngayon,” Lennin said, expressing that it is therefore a “lapse” on the part of the prosecutor.
Lennin shared that a lawyer assured their family that dismissal of the cases will be easier now as compared to what happened in 2014, given that the charges presented are similar in both warrants.
“Yung mga evidence na pinresent namin [noong 2014], yun pa rin yung ifo-forward namin sa prosecutor, so medyo mapapadali. Kaso nga lang ay pandemic, at yung judge sa amin ay twice a month lang daw naghe-hearing, so baka medyo matatagalan din yung mangyayari,” Lennin said.
Attack on religious advocates
According to Lennin, Pastor Gomez had been advocating for the rights of the Lumad community ever since around 2008.
“Pumupunta sila sa mga far-flung areas na may mga Lumad, may mga mahihirap, o in need; tinutulungan ‘yan nila, bilang non-government organization [NGO] … Hindi siya masyadong umuuwi [noon] dahil may pinupuntahan, may tinutulungan,” Lennin said.
Pastor Gomez conducted such advocacies until he stopped in 2012 to focus on his other tasks as an admin pastor of the Mutia branch of UCCP.
According to Karapatan, Pastor Gomez was also a staff member of Dinteg, said to be “Cordillera Indigenous People’s Legal Center” that is funded by the European Union (EU) to handle human rights cases involving Indigenous Peoples (IPs).
UCCP has expressed that their church organization and its constituents have been harassed and persecuted because of their “commitment and engagement in manifesting its prophetic ministry as a faith imperative, through its justice, peace, and human rights program and advocacies”.
Even back in a 2017 report, UCCP has already called for the cessation of all forms of harassment against church people who exercise their religious beliefs. They also called for the decriminalization of political offenses “for acts in pursuit of one’s political beliefs”, and the upholding of “political defense doctrine by charging the proper political charges instead of trumped-up common crimes”.
Political prisoner advocacy group Kapatid also recently called for the emancipation of Pastor Gomez and the dropping of the trumped-up charges.
“Is it wrong to come to the aid of the Lumad Subanen groups in Zamboanga peninsula? Why should [he] be targeted for politically-motivated arrest when it is his ministry to help the poor and neglected?” Kapatid wrote in a post.
UCCP, among other organizations, continues to strongly call for the release of Pastor Gomez.
“No amount of threats, harassment, intimidations can buckle us down [sic] from living the faith!” UCCP’s Obispo Maximo wrote “Release Pastor Benjie from detention!” [P]
Photo from Lennin Mae Gomez