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Explainer: Why is the writ of habeas corpus important?

President Rodrigo Duterte said he would suspend the writ if lawlessness prevails. Philstar.com/RP Ocampo

MANILA, Philippines (First published on Nov. 15, 3:33 p.m.) — President Rodrigo Duterte’s warning that he would suspend the writ of habeas corpus elicited criticisms and reminders to the chief executive of a dark period in recent Philippine history.

In two tweets on Monday, Sen. Sonny Angara summed up the fear.

“Incumbent officials should be careful when talking about the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Very peculiar history since the 70s,” he said.

“The safeguards of the 1987 Constitution on the suspension of the writ of Habeas corpus r there bec.of official abuse/misuse decades ago.”

It was April 1974 at dawn when members of the Philippine Constabulary’s intelligence unit, then headed by former President Fidel Ramos, arrested Boni Ilagan. It was over a year since Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law which suspended civil rights and imposed military authority in the country.

At that time the acclaimed writer went underground as many students of the University of the Philippines opposing the corrupt dictatorship did. Ilagan and his companions, journalist Jose Lacaba and university professor Dolores Stephens Feria, were brought to Camp Crame.

Ilagan said he was detained and placed under agonizing physical and psychological torture for months. Interrogation would sometimes mean lying between two cots with his nape resting on one and his feet on the other. It was like lying on air, he said, except he had to carry the weight of his body and take the punches of his questioners whenever they disagree with his answer.

At one point his tormentors inserted a stick into his genitals. His detainment lasted over two years.

This was part of the history that Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said Communications Secretary Martin Andanar should review after the latter tagged protesters against Marcos’ hero’s burial as “temperamental brats.”

Habeas corpus, which translates to “produce the body,” is suspended during martial law. It is an order to present a person before the court to determine if the arrest or imprisonment is legal or if the inmate must be released from custody. 

Simply put, it is a legal remedy that protects citizens from unlawful arrests and indefinite detentions.

Amnesty International estimated that some 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured and 3,240 were killed during Martial Law.

Duterte said he would suspend the writ if lawlessness prevails. He would do so to suppress the rebellion in Mindanao and stop the drug menace in the country.

He said he wants the last drug lord killed during his term and rid the streets of drug pushers.

Sen. Leila de Lima who is critical of human rights violations in the administration’s war on drugs and Duterte’s staunch ally Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II are in a rare agreement that the president could not suspend the writ as the Constitutional conditions that allow for it are currently absent.

Under Article 3 Section 15 of the 1987 Constitution, “[t]he privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except in cases of invasion or rebellion when the public safety requires it.”

Its purpose is to hold in preventive imprisonment — pending investigation and trial — those who are plotting to commit acts endangering the state.

Prior to declaring Martial Law, Marcos had suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971 through Proclamation No. 889 in response to the Plaza Miranda bombing.

The 1935 Constitution in effect during Marcos’ term states that the president, whenever it becomes necessary, may call out the “armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, he may suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.”

Learning from the lessons of Martial Law, the 1987 Constitution included additional conditions under Article 7 Section 18.

It states that the president may “for a period not exceeding sixty days, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.”

The president is also required to submit a report to Congress within 48 hours from the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

“The Congress, voting jointly, by a vote of at least a majority of all its Members in regular or special session, may revoke such proclamation or suspension, which revocation shall not be set aside by the President. Upon the initiative of the President, the Congress may, in the same manner, extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it.”

The Supreme Court may also review the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The high court is required to promulgate its decision on the matter within 30 days from its filing.

— Video by Efigenio Toledo IV

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