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‘INC wants to silence me’

Former Iglesia ni Cristo Minister Lowell Menorca is already under police custody at the Police Station 5 in Quirino Grandstand in Manila due to a standing warrant of arrest for libel. INQUIRER PHOTO / RICHARD A. REYES

Former Iglesia ni Cristo Minister Lowell Menorca is already under police custody at the Police Station 5 in Quirino Grandstand in Manila due to a standing warrant of arrest for libel. INQUIRER PHOTO / RICHARD A. REYES

“They don’t want me to testify at the Court of Appeals because once I cannot appear all my testimony will be stricken off the record,” Lowell Menorca II said of the sect Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) after his arrest Wednesday.

In broad daylight, Menorca, who is seeking court protection from the religious sect he accused of abducting him last year, was arrested by a team of policemen in plainclothes led by an officer who happened to be an INC member.

The arrest of Menorca in Manila stemmed from a warrant in connection with a libel charge filed by INC members in a court in Lanao del Norte province.

Menorca said his arrest was “proof” that he needed “lifetime protection” from INC, which was accused of detaining several ministers it suspected of posting online articles alleging  corruption in the religious sect.

Menorca, his wife Jinky Otsuka and their 2-year-old daughter were headed to the Court of Appeals at 9 a.m. on Wednesday when the arrest took place on Nakpil corner Hidalgo Street.

He was supposed to attend a scheduled cross-examination regarding his request for  lifetime protection against INC.

He and his wife resisted the policemen, who refused to show their badges and give their names. They also declined to show him a copy of the warrant, according to Menorca.

The policemen were later identified as Arnel Santos and Samson Sison and Dennis Ramos, a tracker team of the Manila Police District (MPD) Pandacan station under Supt. Edilberto Leonardo, an INC member.

Menorca’s friend, Michael Villafuerte, who was driving the couple’s silver Toyota Innova at that time, said everything “happened so fast.”

“They were supposed to transfer to another vehicle that would take them to the Court of Appeals when the cops arrived,” Villafuerte said in a separate interview.

Menorca said when the policemen refused to give proper identification, they resisted and a scuffle ensued. Sison allegedly grabbed Menorca, while Otsuka  fought off Santos—all this in full view of their 2-year-old daughter.

The scene was captured on video that was posted online.

“You have to remember, it’s also the police who abducted me and filed bogus charges against me [for illegal possession of grenade],” he said.

Car chase

When the couple escaped the clutches of the cops, they boarded their vehicle and sped off.

A car chase ensued. It ended on Quirino Avenue corner Roxas Boulevard. A standoff followed.

The standoff ended at 10 a.m. after Menorca decided to go with the cops to the Ermita police station.

As a result, Menorca missed his hearing at the Court of Appeals, where lawyers of INC were supposed to question his testimony during a cross-examination.

As of press time however Menorca was brought to the prosecutor’s office for inquest on charges of resisting arrest, direct assault and obstruction of justice.

Menorca questioned the timing of the arrest and Leonardo’s motive since the superintendent is “also a member of INC.”

“This is proof that I need  lifetime protection against them,” he said while on board a police car that would take him to Ospital ng Maynila. “This will never stop.”

Menorca said he was arrested by Leonardo’s men using a “frivolous” warrant that was “not under his name.”

“I am Lowell Menorca II not Menorca III, yet they still arrested me,” he said at Ospital ng Maynila.

He also questioned the libel case filed by an unknown complainant, and the location of the issuing court. The warrant also specifically noted that it was to be executed by the Quezon City Police.

A copy of the warrant posted online showed that it was issued by acting Presiding Judge Alberto Quinto of Regional Trial Court, 12th Judicial Region, Branch 12 in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte, on Dec. 21, 2015. Bail was set at P10,000.

“This is really a delaying tactic,” Menorca said during his medical exam.

“If I don’t attend the hearing today [Wednesday], there’s a chance my testimony would be junked.”

Call from mother

While at the hospital, Menorca’s mother called from Canada. In their brief conversation, Menorca broke down. While wiping his tears with a white handkerchief, all Menorca could repeatedly say was: “I’m OK ma. I’m OK.”

After their conversation, Menorca said his mother saw the footage of his arrest and panicked.

While on his way to the hospital, another verbal altercation ensued between Menorca and a member of INC, whom he accused of insisting on wanting to join his police escorts.

“No INC cop will join us,” he said.

Menorca would stay the night in the Ermita police station after failing to post the P10,000 bail. He accused the policemen of delaying the procedure.

“Let’s play stupid and pretend INC was not involved here,” he said.

Trixie Cruz Angeles, lawyer for the Menorcas, said the appellate court  would understand why her client had failed to appear. Like Menorca, Angeles was questioning the timing and motive of the arrest.

Angeles said Menorca was never informed of the case and was surprised that he has a case in Mindanao.

Appeal for help

Scared, defenseless and “hopeless,”  Menorca’s wife Wednesday made an emotional appeal for help as her husband remained in police custody.

Otsuka sobbed copiously as she called out her family’s former church for the assault they experienced Wednesday, a seeming repeat of the alleged harassment they had undergone in July last year, when Menorca was seized in Sorsogon province by armed men led by a police official from Metro Manila and purportedly detained by church leaders for three months.

Otsuka and daughter Yurie Keiko had stayed with Menorca at the INC compound in Diliman, Quezon City.

“We were oppressed then we are being trampled upon,” Otsuka told reporters following proceedings at the Court of Appeals.

“Is kidnapping us and detaining us not enough? Now they did this. We are defenseless. I, my husband and our daughter are appealing to anyone who can help us,” Otsuka said.

She cited how the family had decided to go through legal proceedings to ensure the family’s security amid alleged threats that continued to come their way.

“We asked for [a writ of] amparo (protection) so that our family, our lives could somehow get protection. Because we are very scared. To anyone who could spare us some pity, please pity us, help us get justice,” she told reporters in Filipino.

“It was the police that kidnapped us (in July). I don’t know who else could help us. We’re hopeless,” she said.

Otsuka said the family had no idea that her husband had a pending libel case, much less an arrest warrant from a court in a city she had not heard of before.

“[N]ow they arrest my husband. The men were just in slippers. They can’t show us their badge,” she said.

Amparo petition

Angeles said the incident underscored the need for the court to urgently grant the amparo petition, which the former minister’s relatives filed in the Supreme Court on the family’s behalf in October last year while they were still allegedly in the custody of INC leaders.

The family was rescued last Oct. 23, two days after the petition was filed.

The high court ordered the INC leadership to produce the Menorcas in court on the same day they managed to escape the alleged detention. The tribunal then remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to undertake proceedings on the amparo plea.

“We can’t tell the court what to do or what to think or how to interpret these events. We interpret it for ourselves that we are certainly very worried and, therefore, our interest in pushing for amparo becomes an imperative,” Angeles told reporters Wednesday.

Menorca was supposed to undergo cross-examination at the appellate court’s Seventh Division Wednesday.

Judicial affidavit

Such process is necessary to validate the judicial affidavit in which he had detailed his family’s alleged ordeal in the hands of INC leaders, Angeles said.

“His testimony has already been reduced into a judicial affidavit. In this way, he is somehow protected. But this affidavit will be nothing if he’s not cross-examined. So the cross is essential for it to be submitted as evidence. Of course we are worried every time there is a delay in cross examining Mr. Menorca,” she said.

Otsuka said officers of MPD Station 5, where Menorca was brought after his arrest Wednesday morning, had promised to bring her husband to the Court of Appeals at 1 p.m. so he could take the witness stand.

But Menorca was instead brought to Ospital ng Maynila for medical examination.

As Menorca could not make it to court, the Court of Appeal’s Seventh Division ordered MPD Station 5 to produce the detainee in court for the continuation of proceedings on Jan. 26.

 ‘Our hands are tied’

The court issued the order in open court on the request of the MPD legal officer, Supt. Thomas Valmonte, who said such a directive was necessary for the police as part of the procedures covering detainees.

“Our hands are tied. Under the law, we can’t bring him here without a court order. That’s why we manifested for the court to issue an order to produce the body of Menorca,” Valmonte told reporters.

He said Menorca could readily post bail (P10,000 for the libel charges he was facing) and could be immediately set free so that he could bring himself to court for Tuesday’s proceedings.

Angeles reiterated that the petition was filed for the issuance of a writ of amparo because, noting that identifiable elements of the PNP picked up and detained Menorca when he was in Sorsogon.

“Of course, his detention now is very worrisome. It raises a lot of questions and it certainly scares his family very much,” she said.

Otsuka said her husband’s arrest was a victory for INC, as it effectively stopped his supposed appearance in court Wednesday.

“They succeeded in stopping Lowell’s testimony. Why don’t they (INC leaders) want this to push through if they are not hiding anything? Is it not enough for us to get a fair trial?,” she said.

Officers’ side

The arresting officers denied hurting the Menorcas. Santos said it was the other way around.

Santos, head of the tracker team, said his group was only performing the task assigned to it by Leonardo on Tuesday night.

Santos said Leonardo briefed the team on Menorca’s arrest at 8 p.m. on Tuesday and it received a copy of the warrant at 6 a.m. on Wednesday—three hours before the arrest—from Leonardo’s nephew Buboy Leonardo.

The policemen denied hitting the couple and allegations that they were armed. Santos said it was Otsuka  who slapped and kicked him and Sison. Menorca alleged that Santos held his wife while Sison manhandled him.

“No, we didn’t have guns. Our shirts were tucked,” Ramos said.

According to Santos, he and Sison would file physical injuries against Otsuka and obstruction of justice against the friends of the Menorcas who helped them escape.

Last night, Menorca said the Pandacan cops had threatened to charge him in the Manila Prosecutor Office for resisting arrest.

He said his friend, Felix Slava, would be charged with obstruction of justice and direct assault.

“My friend did nothing to the policemen,” Menorca said.  With a report from Annelle Tayao-Juego

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