Positive steps to address extrajudicial killings

Fourteen years ago, alarmed by the mounting incidences of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the country under the Gloria M. Arroyo administration, the Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, responded with unprecedented decisive actions.

The Puno court, with all the magistrates taking active roles, convened a summit dubbed as “A Conspiracy of Hope” in July 2007 and invited a wide range of public participation of concerned sectors plus the military and the police. The summit resulted in successive promulgations by the SC of three additional writs: of amparo in 2007, of habeas data in 2008 and of kalikasan in 2010 – all expanding the judicial protection of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

Notably, the writ of amparo enabled the star witness in the abduction and disappearances, in 2006, of the former UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan to testify before the SC. His testimony led to the filing of the charge of kidnapping with serious illegal detention against president Arroyo’s “favorite general,” Major Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr., known as “the Butcher.” After seven years of trial, the Bulacan court on Sept. 17, 2018 convicted and sentenced him (with two others) to 20-40 years in prison.

Last Tuesday, after weeks of publicized complaints and denunciations over the continuing attacks on lawyers and judges, the SC, led by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, responded with a strongly worded statement to various letters and manifestations it had received.

“The court condemns in the strongest sense every instance where a lawyer is threatened or killed and where a judge is threatened and unfairly labeled,” the tribunal said. “We do not and will not tolerate such acts that only perver[t] justice, defeat the rule of law, undermine the most basic of constitutional principles and speculate on the worth of human lives.”

Raised before the SC were the listings by two lawyers’ groups of between 54 and 61 lawyers, prosecutors and judges who have been killed since 2016 under President Duterte’s watch.

The tribunal considered the threats on judges and lawyers as “no less than an assault on the judiciary… [that] shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands… [and] cannot be allowed in a civilized society like ours.”

For remedial steps, it asked the lower courts and law enforcement agencies to provide it with relevant information on the number and context of any threat or killing of a lawyer or judge in the past 10 years. Further, it urged public interest groups, lawyers, judges and other citizens to also provide “vetted information” on any threat or fatal attack during the same period.

Based on the information thus collected, the SC said it would deliberate in the last week of April and would decide on what to do henceforth, including amending certain procedural rules or crafting new ones to address the problems brought to its attention.

Specifically, the SC said it would promulgate rules on the use of body cameras by law enforcers whenever they serve search or arrest warrants. It also ordered the Office of the Court Administrator to coordinate with law enforcers in investigating the public display of a poster that practically red-tagged Mandaluyong City RTC Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio. The judge had nullified the search warrant, issued by another judge, used in arresting – on Human Rights Day – a woman journalist and a trade unionist, charging them with illegal possession of guns and explosives. She has ordered them freed.

When the SC en banc deliberates in late April, Chief Justice Peralta will no longer be sitting. He retires today, March 27. In an interview before issuing Tuesday’s statement, he was asked whether the SC would amend the writs promulgated by the Puno court. His reply: “We are still using all the writs. We have not yet received any recommendations for their amendments, so that means they are very good. No one is complaining.”

Early this year, however, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate asked Court Administrator Midas Marquez about the possibility of amending the rules on the writ of amparo. He cited the fact that the Court of Appeals had denied pleadings for judicial protection under it, on the ground that the petitioners – including human rights worker Zara Alvarez who, late last year, was shot dead in Bacolod City – had not fully complied with the procedural requirements for filing the petitions. Marquez then replied:

“We [the SC] will review the procedure of the writ of amparo and we will see how we can strengthen (it) to, in effect, strengthen those who come before the courts… and ask for protection.”

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning the killings and other acts of violence against lawyers and judges, and urged President Duterte to undertake the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the members of the legal profession.

Senate Resolution 691 was filed by eight lawyer-senators. It cites Department of Justice data on 54 lawyers killed since 2016, of which only five cases have been filed in the courts.

Also on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon filed Senate Bill 2121, titled “Act Defining and Penalizing Red-Tagging.” It seeks to criminalize and penalize such act “in order to fix the legal gaps, address impunity [and] institutionalize a system of accountability.” The penalty sought is 10 years of imprisonment for the person found guilty of the offense plus “perpetual absolute disqualification to hold public office.”

“The passage of this bill will reverse the increasing institutionalization and normalization of human rights violations [HRVs] and put a stop on the attacks against the members of the legal profession,” states the bill’s explanatory note. Moreover, Drilon stressed that the measure “will likewise serve as a reminder for the government of its primary duty, under the Constitution, to serve and protect the people.”

The continuing governmental public vilification, he added, has threatened the very life, liberty and security of the vilified men and women.“In some instances, being red-tagged is a prelude to death.”

Among several others, the National Union of People’s Lawyers and the human rights watchdog Karapatan – which both have been red-tagged and whose members have become EJK victims – have welcomed the Supreme Court’s response, the Senate resolution and Drilon’s filing of the anti-redtagging bill.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
March 27, 2021

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