Carlos Celdran convicted for 'Damaso act'

·Kim Arveen Patria

Remember the guy who donned a topcoat and hat a la Jose Rizal while raising a placard that said "Damaso" at the Manila Cathedral?

More than two years after his protest against an allegedly meddlesome Catholic church, a criminal court found popular activist Carlos Celdran guilty of "offending religious feelings."

The Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4 sentenced Celdran to suffer imprisonment for an indeterminate period of two months and 21 days as minimum to one year, one month and 11 days.

"[P]remises considered, accused Carlos Celdran y Pamintuan is found 'guilty' beyond reasonable doubt for the crime of offending religious feelings under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code," the court decision dated Dec. 14 said.

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The said provision in the laws lists penalties for "anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful."

Celdran, a reproductive health (RH) advocate and tourist guide made news on Sept. 30, 2010, when he raised a placard that says "Damaso" at the seat of the Manila archbishop while dressed as Jose Rizal.

The protest is a reference to "Padre Damaso", the antagonist priest in Rizal's Noli Me Tangere.

He was protesting Philippine Church leaders' alleged meddling on government, particularly over the reproductive health bill.

"All told, the positive declaration of the witnesses for the prosecution and the circumstances surrounding the incident are sufficient to satisfy the quantum of evidence needed for a criminal conviction," the court said.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, expressed alarm over the court ruling, calling for its reversal.

"This is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy," HRW said in a statement.

"Nobody should be jailed for voicing out an opinion or position, especially on a subject that concerns the lives of millions of Filipino women and mothers," it added.

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The RH law, which is aimed at expanding maternal health programs specifically for the poor, has been signed by President Benigno Aquino III late last year.

Catholic Church leaders who have consistently opposed the measure have meanwhile vowed to continue the fight through other venues.

HRW meanwhile urged the government to ensure that "archaic provisions" in laws will not be used to target RH supporters.

"This case shows the potential for misuse and malicious prosecution and hence the need for urgent reform to this provision of the code," the watchdog said.