MANILA, Philippines — The Supreme Court should look into the "weaponization" of the rule of law that results in not only arrests on what groups said are made-up cases, but also the killings of activists, progressive groups said.
Lawyers and progressive groups are asking the high court to be more proactive as more activists and community leaders were killed Sunday in police operations to search warrants in provinces across Calabarzon.
In a virtual press conference, BAYAN Secretary-General Renato Reyes said it is time for the SC to step in amid “abuses of the law that are too glaring to ignore.”
Reyes said there seems to be a pattern of abuse, which starts with the application for search warrants, which judges issue to authorize the police to enter people's houses and offices.
This is followed by arrests on planted evidence. Or worse, in killings.
Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay also noted a “template”, were search warrants were implemented at 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. She called on the Commission on Human Rights and United Nations to look into police operations invoking the “whole of nation” approach against insurgency, that are “essentially targeting and bringing harm and violence to human rights defenders and activists.”
In 2019, search warrants issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert were implemented in Manila and Negros that resulted in the arrests of dozens of activists. Warrants from her sala were also used in the eventual arrests of the “Human Rights Day 7”, two of whom have had charges against them dismissed over irregularities in the issuance and implementation of warrants.
On Sunday, search warrants from Manila Judge First Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo Dela Rosa and Presiding Judge Jason Zapanta were implemented in operations that swept through four provinces in Calabarzon. Nine were killed and six were arrested in these operations.
Manila and QC judges issuing search warrants
Supreme Court Circular A.M. No. 03-8-02-SC, issued in 2004, allows Manila and Quezon City judges to issue search warrants that may be implemented across the country, “in certain instances and provided that the legal requirements are met.”
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers counsel Josalee Deinla urged the SC to put “safeguards” in this circular, especially as they note that these courts have issued “serial warrants,” based on one set of applicants and witnesses.
She also said the NUPL is demanding that judges be “more circumspect and thoroughly vet applications for search warrants” as there have been anomalies not only in the implementation but also in the application for them.
Lawyer Kristina Conti, from the Public Interest Law Center, recalled that they won at the Mandaluyong court in the voidance of one of Villavert’s search warrant implemented and led to the arrest of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago.
“To attack the case… focus on the issuance of the search warrant, question the hearing, if at all, the judge was able to ask [witnesses] and not only base on submitted affidavit,” Conti added in Filipino.
The lawyers stressed that the implementation of a search warrant is very strict, as the address stated is the only premises that authorities are authorized to enter and gather evidence from.
The Philippine National Police meanwhile asserted they merely "responded" to calls of communities in applying for the search warrants. "Issuance of search warrants is as difficult as getting arrest warrants. There is deposition of witnesses and the examining judge has to make probing questions. Serving of warrants also requires the presence of at least two witnesses. The operations at the least were legitimate… If on the contrary some critics have evidence in their favor, they can go to the court to file their complaints. Otherwise, their claim of questioning the legitimacy of police operations is, as usual, left in emptiness," they said.
The case of Emmanuel Asuncion
But in the case of slain BAYAN-Cavite coordinator Emmanuel Asuncion in Cavite, the police are claiming there was a “chase” from his house in Rosario, Cavite to the office of Workers’ Assistance Center in Dasmariñas, Cavite.
Kilusang Mayo Uno chairperson Elmer Labog and Defend Southern Tagalog’s Charmane Maranan refuted this and said Asuncion and his wife had been staying at the office since Saturday night.
They said Asuncion’s house was searched at 4 a.m., before he was supposedly chased to Dasmariñas and eventually killed at around 5 a.m. Labog said this was a “blatant lie.”
NUPL’s Deinla added that there would also be no probable cause to sustain that enforcers can “chase” Asuncion to the office since “the application and the reason for the issuance of a search warrant pertains to his keeping the firearms in that place, not in his person so there is no [probable] cause to pursue him.”
Conti of PILC meanwhile added that should police argue that the person may still have “control” over the firearm, but this would ultimately fail, “because they have to show that this person was the only one who could possibly access the firearms.”
Pinning hopes on judges, SC
BAYAN’s Reyes said they do not see a scenario where the SC would ignore the continued killings. “Di pwedeng walang gagawin ang SC. It’s not just the activists even lawyers, mga lawyers ng activists, pinapatay, inaatake na rin… too brazen to be ignored by the SC,” he added.
The “Blood Sunday” raids happened days after NUPL member and anti-terrorism law counsel Angelo Karlo Guillen was attacked in Iloilo.
NUPL’s Deinla also said they are not losing hope as they believe that there are still independent judges. “It is important to not succumb to pressure. Those who issue [search warrants], remember that they are allowing intrusion to people’s houses and people’s offices, and their privacy and violation of their constitutional right.”
The SC, through Court Administrator Midas Marquez, said in 2020 that they will review the 2007 Rules of Amparo or the protection writ. Rights groups and the NUPL sought the issuance of the protection writ in 2019 from perceived State threats, but both failed. But to date, the SC has yet to give an update on this.
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