SC pressed to protect people’s rights, freedoms

Amid the national outrage and international concern raised over the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” killing of nine activists in the Southern Tagalog region, urgent calls are being addressed to the Supreme Court to do what it can, while it can, to protect the people’s constitutional rights.

And there’s a very strong basis for seeking the tribunal’s action: the 1987 Constitution expressly mandates and empowers it to “promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights,” set forth in Article VII, Section 5 (5) of the Charter.

Retired SC Justice Antonio Carpio last Thursday discussed this important but not often-cited constitutional provision in his Inquirer column, titled “The gods of Padre Faura.” He emphasized that the Charter’s framers have explained that “this novel provision is both a duty and a power, imposing on the Supreme Court the responsibility as the ultimate guardian of the constitutional rights of the people.”

He wrote: “The fact that the search warrants were served by police and military personnel, who are under the Executive branch of the government, does not excuse the Supreme Court from investigating the killings, which happened while judicial warrants were being served.”

“Any violation of constitutional rights in the service of search warrants is of utmost concern to the Supreme Court,” the veteran jurist further wrote. Obviously, he pointed out, the killings were a “deprivation of life” which the Bill of Rights mandates shouldn’t be done to any person “without due process of law.” Morever, he added, the killings may also have violated the constitutional right of the people to be secure in their persons xxx against unreasonable searches.”

On March 8, the day after the killings that horrified the nation, Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta directed the Office of the Court Administrator, headed by Midas Marquez, to submit a report on the search warrants issued by the Manila courts, which had been used in the carnage.

Promptly, Marquez reported that 63 applications for search warrants were received by the Manila Regional Trial Court – all on March 1 – from the Philippine National Police to be served in different areas of Southern Tagalog. Of the 63 applications, 42 were granted, Marquez said, and apparently were served simultaneously, along with four other warrants issued in Antipolo City on March 7.

It is not clear, as of this writing, whether CJ Peralta has ordered an investigation of the killings that happened during the service of the warrants, as Carpio opined it ought to do.

Human rights lawyer and Bayan Muna chair Neri Javier Colmenares has urged the SC to amend its rules on the issuance of search warrants by the lower courts and to conduct an automatic review of all cases where deaths have resulted in the implementation of the warrants.

His fellow human rights lawyer and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, in turn, has suggested that besides “Bloody Sunday” the tribunal should look into earlier, similar cases during which “deadly search warrants” (as he described them) were served on those who were killed and others who were arrested.

Zarate specifically urged that the SC also look into the role of PNP Chief Gen. Debold Sinas in the disturbing use of court-issued warrants.

The first incident happened from Dec. 27, 2018 to Jan. 15, 2019, when massive AFP-PNP military raids on farmers’ homes were carried out in Negros Oriental province. Notably, close to 100 search warrants were used, all issued by a single trial court judge in Cebu City, RTC-7 Branch 10 Judge Soliver Peras. In the process, seven persons were killed and 40 others were arrested and charged, invariably, with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

A second similar operation was carried out from dawn to dusk on March 30, 2019 in Canlaon City and the Negros Oriental towns of Majuyod and Sta. Catalina. Result: 14 farmers were killed in their homes. The PNP justified the killings, claiming that the slain persons “fought back” – the very same claim by the PNP in the “Bloody Sunday” operations.

For the third time, the same mode of operation was employed on the night of Oct. 31, 2019 in joint AFP-PNP simultaneous raids on the offices of progressive organizations in Bacolod City. This was followed by a raid that same day on the home of an activist couple in Paco, Manila and on the Bayan-Manila office on Nov. 5 – five persons were arrested, including a pregnant woman. Arrested in the Bacolod raids were 57 individuals, including 14 minors.

All these raids and arrests were carried out based on 58 search warrants issued in Quezon City by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of RTC Branch 89.

International Human Rights Day, on Dec. 10, 2020, was chosen by the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group to carry out the fourth version of this modus operandum. Seven persons suspected of leftist leanings were arrested in raids conducted while they were sleeping peacefully in their homes. All the search warrants used were also issued by Judge Burgos-Villavert.

(Note: I have written in this space detailed accounts of the above-mentioned incidences. The operations were in compliance with two orders by President Duterte: Memorandum Circular 32 issued on Nov. 22, 2018 and Executive Order 70 issued on Dec. 4, 2018.)

To date, two trial courts have nullified two of the search warrants that Burgos-Villavert had issued, one in Bacolod City and one in Mandaluyong City, and dismissed the corresponding charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Where was PNP chief Sinas during all these operations? Records show that during the Negros Oriental raids and killings, he was the Region-7 Police Office chief. As the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief, he reportedly conferred with Judge Burgos-Villavert before she issued the 58 warrants for Bacolod and Manila. And he has been PNP chief during the Human Rights Day and the March 7 “Bloody Sunday”operations.

Shouldn’t we connect the dots? Will the Supreme Court take definite action?

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Published in Philippine Star
March 20, 2021

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