In trickles, justice wins vs badly issued warrants

Acknowledging that the application and implementation of search warrants are “susceptible to abuse,” a Manila regional trial court last Wednesday acquitted an activist couple of the non-bailable charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives (grenades) filed by the police.

The prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused, declared Manila RTC Branch 19 Judge Mario Magdoza Malagar. The doubts raised during the trial pertained mainly to the implementation of the search warrants issued against the couple, Cora Agovida and Michael Bartolome.

The court found irregularities in the process of securing and serving the search warrants, upholding what the defendants had been alleging since the start. Thus, the application and issuance of the search warrants were improper and had no basis, stated the ruling, dated Nov. 24.

Judge Malagar found inconsistencies in the police oral testimonies and sworn written statements. The search team, he said, violated the principle of “knock and announce” (giving notice to the accused, showing proof of their authority and demanding to be allowed entry to search). One policeman testified that the team knocked on the door and forced it open. Another cop testified that the search was done at 5 a.m. because the “subjects were usually asleep at that time.” Noting these, the judge wrote: “These raise doubt on the reasonableness of the search that followed.”

His quashing of the search warrants was the latest among similar rulings on similar trumped-up charges by other trial courts. The decisions have come in trickles since March 5 – somehow affording justice and hope to the victims of intensified political repression across the country.

Among the earlier decisions voiding the search warrants and dismissing the illegal possession charges are as follows:

• On March 5, Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio finally ruled to void the search warrant issued by Quezon City RTC Branch 89 Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert in December 2020. She cleared journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago of the charges, for lack of probable cause. Basis: material inconsistencies in the testimonies of the warrant applicant and his witnesses.

• Also in March, Bacolod RTC Branch 42 Judge Ana Celeste Bernad quashed Judge Burgos-Villavert’s search warrant against six of the 57 activists arrested on Oct. 31, 2019 for failure to particularly describe the place to be searched in Bacolod City.

• Judge Rommel Leonor of RTC Branch 21 in Mamburao, Capiz junked the search warrant issued by Manila RTC Branch 4 Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa against Tumandok leaders arrested on Dec. 30, 2020 also for failure to particularly describe the place to be searched.

• Legaspi City RTC Branch 10 Judge Ma. Theresa San Juan-Loquillano annulled, for lack of probable cause, the search warrant issued against Pastor Dan Balucio, who was arrested on May 2, 2021 in Legaspi. The warrant applicant did not have personal knowledge of the alleged crime committed and the location of the place to be searched.

• Judge Ferdinand Baylon of Quezon City RTC Branch 73 quashed the third of Judge Burgos-Villavert’s search warrants, issued against couple Alexander and Winona Birondo on July 23, 2019, for lack of probable cause due to the incredulity of the informant’s testimony and for her failure to ask searching questions.

• Last Nov. 1, Tanauan City RTC Branch 6 Judge Jose Ricuero Flores released his Oct. 25 ruling nullifying Manila RTC Branch 74 Judge Jason Zapanta’s search warrant against Bayan activist Erlindo Baez and dismissing the charges against him. The warrant only mentioned a barangay in Sto. Tomas, Batangas and not Baez’s actual home address.

The National Union of People’s Lawyers has matrixed the above cases. The news site Rappler’s own tally, as of Nov. 1, showed 19 courts quashing search warrants and clearing 22 activists of the charges.

Cora of Gabriela-Metro Manila and husband Michael of Kadamay-Metro Manila were among the activists arrested, in end-October-early November 2019, during simultaneous raids (by the police) in Manila and (by joint military-police) in Bacolod City. Almost all those arrested – 57 in Bacolod and five in Manila – were uniformly charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

That police-military crackdown on progressive people’s organizations, human rights defenders and socio-economic, environmental and cultural advocacy groups – carried out before dawn – was part of the implementation of President Duterte’s Executive Order 70, carried out by the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict).

Executive Judge Burgos-Villavert issued all the search warrants used in the Manila and Bacolod raids. Reportedly, this was after National Capital Region Police chief Debold Sinas (subsequently named PNP chief) had conferred with her.

Such pre-dawn raids were again carried out in Metro Manila on International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10, 2020), with seven activists arrested; in Tapaz, Capiz and Calinog, Iloilo on Dec. 30, 2020, wherein nine Tumandok tribal leaders were slain; and in Calabarzon region in Southern Tagalog, on March 7, 2021, tagged “Bloody Sunday” wherein nine activists were killed.

All these operations were launched while General Sinas was the PNP chief.

Note: From December 2018 to July 21, 2019 – when Sinas headed the PNP Regional Office 7 in Cebu City – joint AFP-PNP forces launched three military operations in Negros Oriental: on Dec. 27, 2018-Jan. 15, 2019; March 30, 2019 and July 21, 2019. At least 49 persons, among them farmer-leaders and a human rights lawyer, were killed. Several others were arrested.

All those operations – implementing “Oplan Sauron” under President Duterte’s Memorandum Circular No. 32 – were covered by about 100 search warrants issued by a single judge: Cebu City RTC Branch 10 Judge Soliver Peras. It was the first time that a single judge performed a “wholesale” issuance of search warrants (as human rights lawyers described it).

Did Sinas emphasize the value of such “efficiency” in his talk with the judge before she issued the similarly wholesale search warrants for Bacolod City and Manila?

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Published in Philippine Star
November 27, 2021

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