DSWD 7 ordered to release Lumad student

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THE Regional Trial Court Branch 20 in Cebu City granted the petition of Lope Haictin, the father of Mekaella, one of the minor Lumad students taken into custody by local social welfare authorities, to immediately release his daughter from the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) 7 and return her to his custody.

In an eight-page decision penned by Judge Leah Geraldez on Thursday, March 11, 2021, the court said it found no factual and legal basis to confine Mekaella at the DSWD 7 Crisis Intervention Center.

DSWD 7 Director Rebecca Geamala said she has yet to receive the court order as she is still in Dumagute City.

On March 4, Haictin, through the assistance of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the Cebu For Human Rights and the Free Legal Assistance Group, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus against Police Regional Office (PRO) 7 Director Brig. Gen. Ronnie Montejo, Geamala and Brenda Abilo, staff of the DSWD 7

Crisis Intervention Center, to “produce the body” of Mekaella before the court, appear before the court and show cause of the detention of Mekaella.

The petition was granted on March 5 and the hearing was held on March 9.

Geamala, on March 9, brought Mekaella to the court and submitted a child study report that contained her reasons why Mekaella should remain in DSWD 7 custody.

Haictin, a resident of Poblacion, Pitogo, Zamboanga del Sur, narrated in his petition the accounts of how his daughter arrived in Cebu City.

Haictin said he arrived in Cebu on Feb. 24 upon learning of the raid last Feb. 15 involving his daughter. He said he visited her last Feb. 26. However, after that, he said he was no longer allowed to talk to her.

He denied that his daughter is a member of or has been recruited by an armed or terrorist group.

He said that sometime in October 2019, he visited his daughter at the Community Technical College in Maco, Davao de Oro, where she was studying.

He said Mekaella had asked him if she could join the Bakwit School program to continue her studies after hearing news of numerous Lumad schools being closed down by the government.

He said he gave her his permission.

When Mekaella arrived in Cebu, he said she regularly communicated with him and his wife through her cellphone.

Haictin said he gave Mekaella an allowance of P1,000 to P2,000 monthly through her teachers.

Last Feb. 15, the PRO 7 conducted a “raid” inside the University of San Carlos retreat house where Mekaella was staying and “seized” 22 students including two Datus (tribe elders) and in-house teachers upon the request of some Lumad parents who sought assistance from authorities.

After this, the DSWD 7 was asked to temporarily take custody of the Lumad minors.

The court said Geamala denied that Mekaella’s liberty is being restrained.

“They averred that the incident on Feb. 15, 2021, was not a raid but a legitimate police rescue operation,” the court said.

The court said Geamala and Abilo asserted that the best interest of Mekaella would best be served if she remained in their care.

The DSWD 7 also provided a parenting capability assessment report, dated March 8, 2021, of the Office of the Municipal Social Welfare and Development of the Municipality of Pitogo, Zamboanga del Sur.

The case study report, the court said, concluded that Haictin’s “open declaration of having the right to chose whom he will entrust the custody of his child as well as the lack of information on the whereabouts of her mother manifest the lack of parental care leading to child neglect.”

The court said the respondents also doubt that petitioner can provide the basic needs of Mekaella because: (1) Haictin and Mekaella’s mother are no longer living together; (2) he cannot even be truthful where he resides now; (3) he has not shown any concrete proof that he has any permanent source of income and (4) he is a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army.

The court, though, was not persuaded by the respondents.

“No matter how respondents wish to characterize Mekaella’s confinement at DSWD, the fact is she does not have freedom of movement, she cannot see anyone from outside without the approval of the respondents, and she does not have freedom and privacy of communication. The court cannot see how these deprivations of her constitutional rights is in Mekaella’s best interest,” it said.

The court also said it cannot deprive Haictin of his fundamental right of parental authority over his child based on “bare allegations alone.” (WBS)