Protecting dissent: Writs of amparo, habeas data

For the second time last month, the Supreme Court took steps to make use of two writs that may offer significant protection to political and social activists facing threats to their lives, liberty and security because of their continuing defense of human rights.

The order to take up the two writs – the judicial remedies of amparo and habeas data – were actually issued earlier in the week but made public only two days ago. Since 2007, they have been part of Philippine jurisprudence that could help correct the abuses inflicted by government upon dissenting citizens who dare to speak up and take action within the framework of existing law.

It was the Supreme Court itself, led by then Chief Justice Reynato Puno, that instituted these novel remedies (already used in other countries) as a response to the surge of human rights violations – topped by extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances – under the Arroyo regime in the second half of the 2000s.

The writ of amparo pertains to the protection by the highest tribunal extended to petitioners where threats to their life, liberty and security emanate from the military, police and other state security forces. The writ of habeas data requires the respondent state authorities to disclose to the petitioners all of the dossiers the former hold against them and, as warranted, to destroy such files against each of them.

In the present case, the court acted on a petition filed by the militant groups Karapatan, Rural Missionaries in the Philippines (RMP), and Gabriela through the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL). The petitioners are seeking relief from the unabated campaign of red-tagging, vilification, threats, harassments, and killings attributed to state security forces under the Duterte government.

The Court of Appeals was directed by the SC to conduct a hearing on the merits of the petition on June 18 and to submit a decision on the case within 10 days after. Once the CA rules in favor of the petitioners, the SC will formally order the implementation of the writs.

The fact that the SC ordered a formal hearing on the petition, and not denied it outright, already indicates it may have found merit in the issues that have been raised, a human rights lawyer explained to me. The lawyer also expressed cautious optimism that an early date (June 13) had been set for comments to be filed by the respondent government and military officials, allowing the process to continue.

Earlier on May 3, the Supreme Court issued a similar order on a parallel petition filed in April by the NUPL, through its legal counsel, the Public Interest Law Center. Thus both the clients (Karapatan, RMP, and Gabriela) and their legal counsel are in the quaint situation of feeling under threat and seeking the same twin judicial remedies from the high court.

This quaint situation speaks volumes about how low the state of human rights has sunk under the Duterte administration – given President Duterte’s sustained verbal attacks against human rights defenders, both national and international, in his first three years in office.

In both petitions, President Duterte heads the respondents, as commander-in-chief of all the state’s armed forces; the others are his top defense and military officials.

Other AFP and PNP officers (identified as members of the National Task Force to end local communist armed conflict, created by Duterte in December 2018) are respondents as well in the Karapatan-RMC-Gabriela petition, along with two Malacanang civilian officials.

Karapatan says in the petition that four of its staff workers have been summarily killed under Duterte’s watch (among the 48 human rights defenders slain from 2001 to 2019). Since October 2017, it adds, President Duterte has red-tagged and vilified Karapatan six times in his public speeches and press conferences, threatening to go after the organization which he alleged to be a “legal front” of the CPP-NPA. Before this, it had already submitted report-complaints to four special rapporteurs of the United Nations, as well as to the Commission on Human Rights.

On its part, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines complains that state security forces have branded as “terrorist activities” its religious and missionary work intended to provide basic social services (such as literacy and numeracy) to the poor, citing specific incidents in Bukidnon and Lanao del Norte. In November 2018, it says, army soldiers abducted four of its volunteer teachers. Like Karapatan, RMP also submitted its report-complaints to the CHR.

Gabriela pointedly cites a March 26, 2019 letter of security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. to the European Union counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove naming three Belgian NGOs that allegedly partnered with “communist front organizations” including Gabriela. It also cites Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Obaniana, AFP Eastern Mindanao Command chief, as having tagged the Gabriela Women’s Party, along with 23 partylist groups, as “CPP-NPA fronts.” Also, Gabriela says its national office in Quezon City has consistently been subjected to “heavy surveillance.”

The three petitioning organizations aver that red-tagging against them became “more systematic” after Duterte signed and issued Executive Order 70 on Dec. 4, 2018. In early 2019, the National Task Force created under EO 70 sent a delegation to Europe that met with officials of various United Nations bodies and member-governments of the European Union. In those meetings, the petitioners say, the NTF delegation tagged them as CPP-NPA front organizations and sought a stop to European funding support for their programs and activities. In a press conference at Malacanang on March 1, they point out, Maj. Gen. Antonio Parlade and three Malacanang minor officials took turns “maligning” Karapatan and RMP.

Based on these incidents, plus others cited in the complaint, the petitioners said the Duterte government officials ”acting directly and indirectly, violated and continue to violate [our] rights to life, liberty and security.” They add that “the glaring incidents of threats, harassment, and killings are aimed at crippling their legitimate operations and programs for the marginalized sectors and the victims of human rights violations.”

A formal hearing has been set this Tuesday at the Court of Appeals on the NUPL petition, and on June 18 regarding the Karapatan-RMC-Gabriela petition. As President Duterte is the lead respondent in both petitions, the solicitor general is expected to do every legal maneuver he can employ to exculpate him. Will the CA justices and, for that matter the SC magistrates many of whom are Duterte’s appointees, be swayed by his arguments? Or will they fairly appreciate the evidence presented by the petitioners and see their way toward granting the writs of amparo and habeas data?

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Published in Philippine Star
June 1, 2019

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