Asia-Pacific

Australian nun released after arrest in Philippines for 'illegal political activity'

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An Australian nun working as a missionary in the Philippines was arrested for allegedly joining protest rallies in the country.

A 71-year-old Australian nun arrested in the Philippines has been released following nearly a day in custody.

The Philippines Bureau of Immigration (BI) on Tuesday released Sister Patricia Fox, about 22 hours after she was apprehended on allegations she engaged in political activities and anti-government demonstrations.

Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente issued the arrest order for Sister Fox, saying she had violated the conditions of her visa.

But on Tuesday, Commissioner Morente approved a recommendation of the BI legal division to release Sister Fox, pending further investigation into her arrest. 

The department said in a statement the Australian nun holds a valid missionary visa but added that she may still face deportation. According to the release order, the BI will hold Sister Fox's passport until the investigation is finalised, and she won’t be able to leave the country.

In a two-page recommendation to Commissioner Morente, BI lawyer Arvin Cesar Santos noted that while Sister Fox was alleged to have taken part in protest actions by farmers in the past, she was not doing so when BI operatives served her the mission order on Monday. 

The BI said Sister Fox reportedly submitted her passport and other immigration documents showing she was issued her missionary visa on October 15, 2017. Her visa is valid until September 9, 2018. 

Mr Santos said that under BI rules, Sister Fox should undergo a preliminary investigation to determine if deportation charges should be filed against her before the bureau’s board of commissioners.

Who is Sister Patricia Fox? 

According to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Sister Fox is a missionary of Our Lady of Sion (Notre Dame De Sion). She is also said to be a member of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines.

The CBCP said on Twitter that the Australian missionary had worked in the Philippines for 27 years "helping farmers and indigenous peoples". 

It is understood Sister Fox had recently joined an international fact-finding and solidarity mission in Mindanao, an island in the Philippines.

“I have known Sister Fox for several years already… she is a human rights and a genuine agrarian reform advocate who tirelessly provided various social service to farmers including the farmers of Hacienda Luisita,” Sister Fox’s lawyer, Jobert Pahilga, said in a statement.

Secretary-General Renato Reyes from left-wing group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan ‘New Patriotic Alliance’ (Bayan) said Sister Fox "has long been in the Philippines helping the poorest of the poor. She is no criminal or undesirable alien. We condemn her unjust detention and the deportation proceedings initiated against her."

Why was she arrested? 

The CBCP said on Tuesday Sister Fox had been arrested by six immigration officers at a mission house in Quezon City, northeast of Manila, about 2.15pm Monday (local time).

When SBS News spoke with a CBCP spokesman they said she had been detained for about 21 hours (as of 3.30pm AEST Tuesday). She was granted release one hour later. 

Philippines justice secretary Menardo Guevarra said the arrest “has nothing to do with her being a nun, nor with her personal advocacies,” according to a report by CNN. 

On Monday, the CBCP provided updates regarding Sister Fox’s arrest saying she had been detained at the Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Immigration in Intramuros, Manila.

Sister Patricia Fox recently joined an international fact-finding and solidarity mission in Mindanao.
Sister Patricia Fox recently joined an international fact-finding and solidarity mission in Mindanao.
CBCP Twitter

The CBCP said Mr Pahilga had told them Sister Fox was arrested and faced deportation because she was allegedly considered an “undesirable alien” for joining protest rallies in Davao Oriental in Mindanao, allegations her lawyer said were false. 

In a statement, Mr Pahilga said he believed Sister Fox “has done nothing wrong or illegal that would warrant her arrest, detention and possible deportation.”

He said the arrest related to her work during 6-9 April in Tagum City and Davao City and was on “flimsy ground”.

“She was arrested by the Bureau of Immigration because the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) of Region XI, the Southern Mindanao Region (SMR), complained that she is an undesirable alien as she allegedly joined a rally against the government in Tagum City and visited the striking Coca-cola workers in Davao City,” he said. 

Mr Reyes said Sister Fox was taken by operatives for “joining rallies” while working with a mission who was investigating the human rights situation under martial law. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law on Mindanao in May last year. 

Mr Pahilga says Sister Fox was not involved in any rallies during her mission work. 

“On April 6-9, Sister Pat visited farmer-detainees in Tagum City and the striking Coca-cola workers as part of the International Fact-Finding and Solidarity Mission (IFFSM) conducted by human rights and farmers' organization. The purpose of the IFFSM was to verify and document the reported rampant human rights violations against our farmers in Mindanao and submit the fact-finding report with recommendations to government agencies for appropriate action,” Mr Pahilga said.

“The NICA complaint included a photo showing Sister Pat, raising a clenched fist, with farmer-detainees in Tagum with the banner "Stop Killing Farmers,” he alleged.

“Another photo shows that she was standing in a street wearing an Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (The Philippines agriculture union) T-Shirt. Those photos were taken last April 6-9. But there is nothing illegal with what Sister Pat did.”

“Contrary to the claim of NICA, Sister Pat did not join any rally in Tagum or Davao or in any province of Region XI for that matter.

What happens now? 

Sister Fox has been released, she has not been charged but she will not be able to leave the Philippines until the investigation is finalised. 

It's unclear how long this will take. A CBCP spokesman said Sister Fox plans to return to Australia in May for a trip. 

Mr Pahilga said Sister Fox had “satisfactorily explained” her actions to the BI before her release was requested. He said the special prosecutor was inclined to release her immediately but she did not have her passport with her when she was arrested. 

A few hours after her passport had been handed over to authorities she was granted release. 

“There seems to be a government war on foreigners who have shown solidarity with Filipinos. This comes after President Duterte threatened to arrest officials of the ICC and after Immigration officials deported an EU parliamentarian," Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Secretary-General Reyes said, referring to the case. 

The CBCP also claimed Sister Fox required medication for a spinal cord illness. She allegedly told them she was forced to sleep on the floor of the BI security office during her time under arrest. 

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo visited Sister Fox at the immigration office on Monday.

He told the CBCP: “The grip is getting tighter on people who manifest dissent against the abuses of the government. This is already happening without martial law. What would it be if there were martial law which hangs heavy in the air.”

Australia's foreign affairs department said they were providing consular assistance in accordance with the Consular Services Charter "to an Australian woman detained in the Philippines". 

"Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment". 

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