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Former Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) minister Lowell Menorca on Friday confirmed that he and his family were abducted at the Quezon City compound of the politically influential religious group, saying his statements in past interviews were all lies orchestrated by the church leadership.
The surprising turn of events came even as the Supreme Court on Friday ordered INC to produce Menorca in court, a rare directive to a religious sect known for its strict conformity to internal edicts and aversion to unfavorable judicial resolutions.
The en banc order was released hours after the family’s lawyer, Trixie Cruz-Angeles, bared on Facebook that the Menorcas have been “rescued.”
“After several months, Lowell Menorca and his family have been rescued. The case for the issuance of the writ of amparo before the Supreme Court en banc will proceed,” Angeles said in her post.
In a video sent to Inquirer.net, Menorca said he wanted to speak the truth once and for all amid the alleged oppression continuously being committed by high-ranking leaders of the influential sect.
“Perhaps you have seen me speak in a video on Net 25. I want to tell you now that that was scripted,” Menorca said in Filipino in the almost five-minute video.
Menorca said he was coached by other INC officials on what to say during past interviews. He said he submitted to their wishes because his life and that of his family were in danger.
Menorca was earlier identified by Isaias Samson Jr., former editor in chief of Pasugo, INC’s official publication, in an alleged abduction in Sorsogon province, where he was said to have been taken and detained in Cavite province for illegal possession of explosives. He was released by the police on July 26.
In a petition for habeas corpus filed on Wednesday, Menorca’s younger brother Anthony, and Jungko Otsuka, twin sister of the ex-minister’s wife Jinky Menorca, asked the Supreme Court to protect their relatives and compel the INC leadership to release them.
He said they were detained at the INC central compound in Quezon City from July 25 to Oct. 21.
Contrary to reports, he said his family never sought protective custody from INC. He said they were brought to the compound in an effort to remove him from office and to put him in a controlled environment, where he could be within reach anytime.
Deprived of freedom
The former minister said they were deprived of the freedom to entertain guests and visitors and to use any electronic gadget.
Menorca admitted that he considered remaining silent for the sake of the integrity of INC but he decided to speak up because of the continued human rights violations being committed by church leaders.
Menorca said he was aware that he and his family members may be expelled from the church following his revelations, but they were ready to accept the consequences for the sake of the truth.
Further details regarding the abduction would be revealed in a press conference next week, he said.
It was a swift grant of the Menorcas’ plea for the issuance of writs of amparo and habeas corpus filed on Wednesday to seek protection for the family and for them to be produced by church leaders who have been allegedly holding them on suspicion of subversion for more than three months.
The high court said the petition was “sufficient in form and substance” and that it was “necessary and proper” to grant the family relief.
The two-page resolution remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for proceedings, setting Nov. 3 as its first hearing date.
The order directly addressed the respondents, INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo and members of the church’s powerful Sanggunian (governing council), including Radel Cortez, Bienvenido Santiago and Rolando Esguerra.
“You, respondents … are hereby required to make a verified return of these writs before the Court of Appeals within five (5) working days from notice hereof; and appear and produce the persons of Lowell Menorca, Jinky Otsuka-Menorca, Yurie Keiko Otsuka and Abbegail Yanson before the Court of Appeals on Nov. 3, 2015, at 10 a.m,” the order read.
The high court further directed the appellate court to resolve the case 10 days after it has been submitted for decision.
Angeles said the amparo order was important even as the Menorcas were no longer detained, as it would continue to protect the expelled minister from the church leaders behind his alleged abduction.
“The writ of amparo protects him even when no longer in the custody of those who illegally held him. This is the most important protective measure of all.
In the petition, Menorca’s younger brother Anthony and Jungko said the family were held as “slaves” by their own church, likening INC to “a ravenous monster.”
They said the Menorcas were “subjected to the INC’s unjustified, unlawful and inhumane restriction of their liberty,” underscoring the urgency for the family to be surfaced because of threats to their lives.
The former minister was first reported taken in Sorsogon province on July 16, and later turned up in a Dasmariñas City jail for allegedly threatening a group of construction workers with a grenade.
His wife witnessed his abduction, and was later forced to join her husband under “house arrest” at the INC compound, along with their daughter and helper.
Menorca later appeared in an interview on INC-owned Net 25, denying that he was taken. But Anthony, currently under government protection, said his sibling was clearly under duress during the interview.
The abduction of the Menorcas happened days before Cristina “Tenny” Manalo, widow of former INC executive minister Eraño Manalo, and her son Angel, issued a distress call through video posts on Facebook, the start of an apparent crisis dividing the church.
Samson, another former minister, also surfaced on the same week the videos were posted, saying he and his family had just escaped the INC compound after being held for a week.
It was Samson who first confirmed that 10 other INC ministers, including Menorca, had been taken. The INC maintains that none of the abductions ever happened.
Samson has a pending case at the Department of Justice (DOJ) against Sanggunian leaders for detaining him and his family.
The DOJ’s routine acceptance of the case prompted the INC to mount protests outside the justice department’s headquarters in Manila in late August, culminating in a mass-up on Edsa that peaked with a crowd of 20,000.
Angeles did not disclose details of the “rescue,” except to confirm that no police officers were involved. She said Menorca will bare his story in a tell-all on Sunday.
Angeles made the pronouncement in response to former Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella’s statement that Menorca was peacefully transported from the Iglesia central headquarters to his aunt’s house in Fairview.
“Mr. Menorca will be making his statement on Sunday. Right now, he’s just enjoying the chance to be free for the first time in three months,” Angeles said in a media interview at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.
Angeles is also representing Angel Manalo and other respondents in the case filed by INC in the RTC to bar them from receiving visitors at No. 36 Tandang Sora, Quezon City.
“I’ve been informed that our petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus and writ of amparo has been granted by the Supreme Court and then remanded to the Court of Appeals for hearing on Nov. 3. So we’re very happy with this,” she said.
“This is very important to us despite the rescue because the writ of amparo guarantees his protection even if he is no longer within the illegal confines of the adverse party,” Angeles said.
The lawyer questioned Fuentebella’s involvement in the issue. “I have serious considerations about why is he making a statement and why was he a particular witness to this alleged release. Because I would like to know what is his business in doing so.”
Fuentebella told the Inquirer that someone from INC called him requesting his presence to witness Menorca’s transfer around 11 p.m. on Thursday. He said he could not remember who called him.
“They probably want to ensure that no untoward incident will happen,” he said when asked why there was a need for a witness.
The former House Speaker said he went inside the INC compound and met Menorca and his family members in the “apartment house.” It was a four-vehicle convoy that transported the Menorcas to Fairview, he said. Fuentebella was in a separate vehicle from the Menorcas.
Fuentebella said Menorca also signed an affidavit stating that he voluntarily left the church compound.
“I asked him, did you sign this without anyone threatening you? He said yes,” Fuentebella said.
Angeles said she was aware of such an affidavit. “And our client insists that any writing or issuance that he allegedly made while in custody, is one that he has made under duress.”
“We note that (Menorca) was transferred after we filed the petition for the issuance of the writ of habeas corpus. And we believe that the intent for this was quite possibly to hide him from the authorities should the writ be issued. So the position is that, at the time, he was not just in danger, but he was gravely in danger,” Angeles said.
She said Fuentebella could not have been a witness to any of the duress underwent by Menorca.
“We will seek to make the writ of amparo permanent. As well as the turnover of any electronic surveillance records. And to insist that the people who held him, the people responsible for his incarceration be ordered by the court to stay away from him and his family,” Angeles said.
The Inquirer tried but failed to reach INC spokesperson Edwin Zabala for comment. He was not responding to text messages and his mobile phone was unattended. With a report from Ria Consuelo Mendoza
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