Cemetery dwellers sent to jail

TWO women have been sentenced to six years each in jail for squatting in a Manila cemetery that is reserved for national heroes, but has become over-run with people needing homes, the military said.

The army said the court rulings, issued in May, but announced today as part of a publicity campaign, were a big victory in its long-running struggle to remove thousands of squatters living in illegal shanty dwellings in the cemetery.

About 8000 people have illegally built homes on a 40-hectare section of the National Heroes’ Cemetery over the past 18 years, said Colonel Marcial Constante, head of security for the 142ha graveyard.  “The land reserved for the National Shrine must be respected as a fitting resting place for national heroes and fallen soldiers,” he said.

“When you stand on the edge of the slum, you can see the white crosses and tombstones in the distance.”  He said a lower court in nearby Taguig City had ordered the jailing of Erlinda Belaya and Nimfa David for six years in May for illegally occupying the cemetery.  Belaya is out on probation while David has appealed her jail sentence and remains free pending the court’s judgment, he said.

The government says 2.7 million people live in Manila slums, although the World Bank says the problem is much worse. The bank calculates that half of Manila’s 12 million people live in shanty towns.  The Philippine Army has demolished Belaya’s shanty and is awaiting a court ruling on 42 other cases filed against other people occupying the cemetery, according to Col. Constante.

The army “looks to this conviction as a strong signal for other informal settlers to voluntarily dismantle their structures and put an end to the operation of squatting syndicates in the National Shrine area,” he said.  Col. Constante said the military had only publicised the court’s verdicts today as part of a campaign to highlight its struggle to clear the squatters.

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