Court junks case vs two of 'Human Rights Day 7,' reminds cops to observe people's rights

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Court junks case vs two of 'Human Rights Day 7,' reminds cops to observe people's rights
This December 11 photo from the Free Lady Ann Salem Network Facebook page shows Salem after inquest proceedings after her December 10 arrest.
Free Lady Ann Salem Network Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines — A Mandaluyong court has junked the charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against journalist Lady Ann Salem and labor organizer Rodrigo Esparago as it reminded law enforcers to enact their duties to stamp out criminality only while observing the rights of the people.

The Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 Presiding Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, in a ten-page order made public late Friday night, also declared the search warrants implemented that led to the arrest of the two, who are part of the dubbed “Human Rights Day 7," as null and void.

“Wherefore, premised considered, the Joint Omnibus Motion (1) To Quash Search Warrant (2) To Suppress Evidence and (3) To Declare Inadmissible Illegally Seized Items with Prayer to Dismiss the Cases dated 13 January 2021 is hereby granted,” the ruling dated February 5 read.

Search warrant voided

Salem and Esparago were arrested as the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group implemented a search warrant they obtained from Quezon City trial court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.

Villavert on Dec. 3, 2020 issued Search Warrant 6044(20) for violation of illegal possession of firearms, and Search Warrant 6045(20) for illegal possession of explosives.

Villavert is the same judge who issued search warrants that resulted in arrests of dozens of activists in Negros and Manila in 2019.

The Mandaluyong court, however, noted that Search Warrant No. 6044(20) was a “general warrant” that did not sufficiently describe the laptop and cellphone to be seized. “Hence, void for vagueness,” it said.

Specifically, Search Warrant No. 6044(20) ordered the raiding team the following:

  • Four units caliber .45 pistol
  • Two units caliber .38 revolver
  • Magazine and ammunition
  • One unit laptop
  • One unit cellphone

Judge Quisumbing-Ignacio added that since the raiding team that did not know which gadgets they were supposed to seize, they took four laptops and five cellphones.

“This clearly shows that the Search Warrant suffered from vagueness. They undertook a ‘fishing expedition to seize and confiscate’ any and all cellphones and laptops they found in the premises,” the order read.

The court stressed: “Law enforcers are authorized to seize only those items listed in the search warrant leaving them with no discretion regarding what articles they shall seize.”

Inconsistency in sworn affidavits, testimonies

The court also noted “substantial inconsistencies and contradictions” in the testimony and sworn statements of the informant and law enforcers involved in the operation.

The inconsistencies ranged from who took the photo of the firearm and encoded it in the laptop; on whether the firearm was put in a bubble wrap or not; on who received the firearms, magazines and ammunition for delivery; and the kind and number of bags used in the deliveries; and when the deliveries stopped.

“All told, there being numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, the testimonies of the foregoing witnesses cannot be given full faith and credence,” the order read.

The court said that since the sworn affidavits and testimonies served as the sole basis of the search warrant, “the Court finds that probable cause was not sufficiently established.”

It added that since the issuance of the search warrants violated the Constitution and Rules of Court, items sized in the premises of Salem and Esparago’s units were inadmissible as evidence “being fruits of the poisonous tree.”

The judge went on to stress that the Supreme Court in a 1990 case held that while it “sympathizes with the police” in eradicating criminality and maintaining peace and order in the country, law enforcers are reminded that “they must do so only upon strict observance of the constitutional and statutory rights of our people.”

READ: CIDG: Cops 'followed rules' in Human Rights Day arrests

Why does this matter?

Salem and Esparago and five other activists were arrested on December 10, as the world commemorated International Human Rights Day.

The five others were arrested also as law enforcers implemented the search warrants that Judge Villavert issued, based on the same surveillance records.

The “HRDay 7” are among the latest of activists jailed over the same charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Rights alliance group Karapatan had earlier said that more than 400 political prisoners arrested under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte are accused of the same charges.

READ: Firearms and explosives raps easy way to lock activists up, NUPL says

But the Public Interest Law Center, Salem’s counsels, said that the court’s ruling which quashed Villavert’s search warrant, are now put into question.

“The dismissal of charges clearly demolishes the Duterte government’s vilification and red-tagging campaign against the Human Rights Day 7,” PILC added in a statement.

They added that the dismissal of the case dealt a severe blow to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which previously held the arrest as a success of the anti-insurgency campaign.

“The first blow was their failure to assert this in court: there was no crime to file about it, meaning, it had no legal impact. The nail in the coffin is the dismissal of the cases, exposing not just faulty police work but vicious political persecution,” PILC added.

Families and friends of the HRDay 7, as well as rights groups, have also called on the Judiciary to look into the issuance and implementation of search warrants, in the wake of spate of arrests of activists.

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