Justice for those killed in search warrant abuses

Last week, the Supreme Court made public its amended rules on search warrant issuances and search operations, aimed at ending the abuses by law enforcers that have resulted in the killing of dozens and arrest of hundreds of activists in the past three years.

The remedial measures are only applicable henceforth. They offer no comfort to the victims of the abuses, particularly the families of those who were killed, that they can now be afforded the justice they deserve.

The tribunal issued the new rules in response to a letter of 139 lawyers and those of other concerned groups, all urging the magistrates to “take immediate, concrete and responsible action.”

Promulgated on June 29, the new rules highlight two things: 1) They withdrew the authority of Regional Trial Court executive judges in Manila and Quezon City – given to them in 2004 – to issue search warrants that could be served in areas outside their territorial jurisdiction. And 2) they require law enforcers to make video recordings of their implementation of court-issued search warrants.

Both The Philippine STAR and the Inquirer came out with editorials welcoming the Supreme Court’s action.

The STAR editorial noted: “The ruling, if fully implemented, is expected to prevent the abuse of state power.” It cited the killing of three teenagers “allegedly for fighting back in police anti-drug operations” and the March 7, 2021 “simultaneous operations in Calabarzon by military and police armed with search warrants issued by Manila judges [that] led to the fatal shooting of nine activists accused of being members of the New People’s Army.”

“As in the enforcement of laws, however, the devil will be in the enforcement of the SC ruling,” went the editorial’s caveat. “The SC move is a welcome first step in putting an end to abuses in the exercise of state power… But it will be most effective with proper fine-tuning, balancing the interests of the public and law enforcement.”

On its part, the Inquirer editorial hailed the issuance of the new rules as a “move toward greater accountability and transparency in law enforcement operations.” How? By putting “an end to the cross-border issuance of ‘wholesale’ search and arrest warrants by the courts” and “requiring the Philippine National Police and other law enforcers to use body-worn cameras when serving these judicial orders.”

Lawyers, activists and human rights advocates, who had been protesting against the killings and other abuses in the course of serving search warrants, have “scored a major victory,” the editorial said. Under the new rules, failure by law enforcers to use the required body camera when serving will render the evidence produced “inadmissible for the prosecution of the offense for which the warrant was applied,” it explained.

According to the new rules, the video recordings “can deter the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers in the execution of warrants and can aid trial courts in resolving issues that may become relevant in the criminal case, such as conflicting eyewitness accounts.”

The National Union of People’s Lawyers welcomed the SC response as “generally… grounded on abundant experience and appears to have taken into good account the clamor to address the situations that [resulted] in human rights violations.” Included in the new rules are several of the NUPL’s recommendations, per the group’s president, Edre U. Olalia. These include requiring the submission of videos during inquest proceedings, limiting the power of judges to issue search warrants and prohibiting the application of multiple search warrants.

The first instance where multiple search warrants were applied for – more than 80 of them approved by a single judge – was in December 2018.

The PNP Police Regional Office-7 (PRO-7), based in Cebu City, filed the applications in the sala of Judge Soliver Peras of Cebu City RTC Branch 10, who approved them. Use of the warrants in a military-police operation against alleged illegal firearms and explosives in Guihulngan City in Negros Oriental resulted in the killing of six persons and arrest of several others. In the similar operation on March 30, 2019 in Canlaon City and two towns of Negros Oriental, Judge Peras approved the 35 search warrants used. Result: 14 farmers were killed, allegedly because they “fought back” during the search operations.

The PRO-7, which planned both operations, was then headed by Debold Sinas, who was later named chief of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) and later promoted to PNP chief. As NCRPO head, Sinas reportedly conferred with QC RTC Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, who approved 58 search warrants, which the AFP-PNP tandem used in simultaneous raids on the offices of progressive people’s organizations in Bacolod City on the night of Oct. 29, 2019 and in police raids of two houses in Manila on Oct. 30 and Nov. 5.

The Bacolod raids resulted in the arrest of 57 activists and 14 others, including 14 minors. The Manila raids netted five activists arrested. Three subsequent operations using search warrants issued by Manila and Quezon City judges were the Human Rights Day (Dec. 10, 2020) crackdown on trade union and other activists in Metro Manila; the raids in the communities of the Tumandok indigenous people in Panay last Dec. 30, where nine Tumandok leaders were killed; and the March 7, 2021 “Black Sunday” AFP-PNP raids in Calabarzon.

In three cases, so far – in the raids in Bacolod City, Metro Manila and Panay – the search warrants issued by the Quezon City and Manila courts were quashed and the charges filed against those arrested were dismissed by the RTC courts that heard the cases.

Debold Sinas figured prominently in all the questioned search warrant issuances and implementations. Yet, he retired as PNP chief on May 7, 2021, without being officially called to account for the abuses that the Supreme Court has had to address and stop. Also, there hasn’t been any report of disciplinary action against the judges who apparently abused their authority.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com17

Published in The Philippine Star
July 17, 2021

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