The Strange Case of Citizen Celdran, Part I
NEW YORK—The setting couldn’t have been more dramatic or fitting: the storied, high-vaulted centuries old Manila Cathedral, right in the heart of Intramuros, the 16th century walled city that was the epicenter of Spanish Philippines. Gathered there on September 30, 2010, were religious leaders of different congregations, in a conference sponsored by the Philippine Bible Society.
The Reproductive Health Bill hadn’t as yet been passed by Congress, though it had been introduced a decade earlier. Predictably, the religious sector, in particular the Catholic hierarchy, opposed the passage of the bill, preaching against it at every turn, stressing, as the religious right does in the States, that it was pro-life.
At some point that morning, in the midst of an ecumenical prayer, a man in a dark suit and wearing a bowler hat, walked in, proceeded to the front of the altar, and held aloft a placard with “Damaso” imprinted on it, alluding to the hypocritical friar so memorably depicted in Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere. The man also demanded that the clerics stay out of politics.
That man was Carlos Celdran, a performance artist who had been leading walking tours of Intramuros and Old Manila for years—tours that were as far from the usual by-the-numbers guided tour as you could get. His were immensely popular as these were lively, factual, and fun. That morning, Celdran’s sartorial get-up was meant to evoke the classic image of Jose Rizal, as he was marched from Fort Santiago to the Luneta (now Rizal Park), bowler hat and all, just outside the walls of Intramuros, and there cut down by firing squad on the morning of December 30, 1896.
The Spanish friars had gotten their revenge. They seem to have extended their claws into the future as well.
For his theatrical demonstration, Celdran was charged with offending religious feelings under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code. He was found guilty by a trial court, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals. Celdran’s lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court. But the SC reaffirmed the CA’s ruling, stating that under the Rules of Court, it was not a trier of facts, and in effect had no choice but to let the lower courts’ judgment stand. Celdran would have to serve a prison sentence of at a minimum three months to a maximum of one year, one month, and one day, simply for exercising his right to free speech.
Rather than serve time, Celdran left Manila and currently lives in Madrid. I got in touch with him recently, when I was made aware of his situation through a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf. He agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail.
Here is the first part of the interview, edited for clarity.
- What is the legal status of your case right now? Who is representing you in Manila?
I’m being represented by Atty. Marlon Manuel of Volunteer Lawyers of the Philippines. [My case]
Is currently floating in the Supreme Court. I’ve had the conviction upheld three times already. I’ve also appealed three times. The last one was the most alarming one because it was sent to me during the Christmas break [of 2018]. We all know no one goes to work between Christmas and New year. We literally had less than a day to appeal when my lawyer Atty. Marlon Manuel opened the letter on his office desk. [That appeal was nevertheless successfully filed, as will be made clear in Part II of this interview.]
- It seems it is possible to appeal to the Supreme Court more than once.
Yes it’s possible to keep appealing. I don’t know how it is possible, though. My lawyer would know best about the exact legalities. The current Solicitor General did advise dropping the case though but still nothing is coming of it.. My lawyer requested an en banc [physical argumentation before the Supreme Court] but I believe my last appeal had that rejected too.
- Is there any member of the church establishment sympathetic to your case?
Well, so far, the closest I have is Christian Monsod. He’s not part of the clergy but he’s pretty close to the CBCP [Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines].
[In an interview with Rappler’s Raissa Robles, Monsod said he did not find Celdran’s protest offensive, and in fact found the whole incident amusing. In his get-up, Celdran reminded him of Charlie Chaplin.]
- Any reaction or statement, from Luis Cardinal Tagle concerning your case?
Yes. He said the church has forgiven me for what I did. The case was actually pursued by a private entity. A lawyer named Atty. Ronaldo Reyes.
[The Cardinal’s comments came conveniently a few days before Pope Francis’s visit to Manila in January 2015. The Pope is known for his advocacy of forgiveness. The original plaintiff in this case seems to have been the Catholic leadership. A criminal act of “offending religious feelings” would not have made it to the trial courts had not the clergy participated, at the very least endorsing the criminal complaint.]
I understand you wrote Pope Francis asking him to get the bishops to forgive you after the Court of Appeals upheld your conviction.
I wrote to him via Twitter. I never received a reply though. I never wrote him directly as he has no say in the case as the lawyer was acting on his own.
- Any statements from the presidential office or any government higher up?
Only past ones with Noynoy.
(Celdran was referring to President Noynoy Aquino’s statement to reporters in January of 2013, that he hoped the local clergy would follow the Pope’s example. The reference was to Pope Benedict XVI who forgave his personal butler for filching personal papers and disseminating these to the media.]
To be continued.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2019