Court junks anti-terrorism case vs 2 Aeta farmers among first charged under ATA

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Court junks anti-terrorism case vs 2 Aeta farmers among first charged under ATA
This undated photo shows protesters against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
The STAR / Boy Santos, file

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 11:58 a.m.) — An Olongapo court has junked the violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act case against Aeta farmers Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, the first known to have been charged under the much-feared law.

The Olongapo Regional Trial Court Branch 97 granted the Demurrer to Evidence — which challenges the sufficiency of prosecution evidence — filed by Gurung and Ramos, as assisted by the Public Attorney’s Office.

Presiding Judge Melani Fay Tadili ordered their release.

“After a careful examination of the records, the Court holds that the prosecution failed to discharge the burden of providing the identities of the accused as the perpetrators of the crime of violation of Section 4 of [Republic Act 11479. Thus, the case for violation of this law against the accused must be dismissed,” the nine-page order dated July 15 read.

The case stemmed from an incident that happened on August 21, 2020 — weeks before the Department of Justice issued its Implementing Rules and Regulations on the law — in San Marcelino, Zambales.

Five people, including two minors, were evacuating due to “intense military operations and continued bombings in their ancestral land” when they were accosted by Philippine Army members.

The Information, or charge sheet, penned by Assistant Provincial Prosecutor Ritchi John Distor Bolañi said that the two accused were "conspiring, confederating and cooperating with each other" and engaged in acts "intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endangers a [person’s] life, by firing and shooting at members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines."

It added that the two fatally wounded and caused the death of Sgt. Rudil Dilao, “thereby causing intimidation to the general public, spreading a message of fear and seriously undermining public safety, to damage and prejudice the heirs of [Dilao].”

Failure to identify perpetrators, warrantless arrest invalid

In resolving their Demurrer to Evidence, the court noted that while according to the prosecution, two soldiers identified Gurung and Ramos based on eyewitness account, “no declaration was made they saw the accused during the firefight.”

It also noted other “material inconsistencies” in the identification of the accused in the soldiers’ affidavit and witness testimonies in court, such as whether they identified Gurung and Ramos through photos shown to them.

“In view of the foregoing, the Court finds no further need to discuss whether the prosecution was able to adequately establish the existence of the crime of violation of Section 4 of RA 11479,” it added.

In the first known case in violation of the Human Security Act — which the ATA repealed — farmer Edgar Candule sued the government for P480.5 million in damages for his detention from 2008 to his release in 2010. No similar provision is found in the ATA, with its supporters saying the provision on damages hampered security operations.

The court also noted that the incident involved more or less ten armed people, some of whom were Aetas like Gurung and Ramos, and happened in brief life-threatening circumstances.

It said that since Gurung and Ramos were not proven to be the perpetrators of the crime, their warrantless arrest under the principle of flagrante delicto (caught in the act) is invalid.

“[A]ccused were not proved to be the perpetrators of the acts of terrorism under Section 4 of RA 11479. They were just running at the moment of their arrest… Thus, their warrantless arrest was unlawful,” the court said.

Following this, the judge also said that the ammunition and grenade authorities said were seized from the accused are rendered inadmissible. 

SC proceedings

In a manifestation filed by Anti-Terrorism Act before the SC, petitioners BAYAN said Gurung and Ramos claimed that the evidence against them were planted and that they were falsely accused as members of the New People’s Army.

Regional members of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, which assisted BAYAN in the SC case, represented Gurung and Ramos in the trial court proceedings until government lawyers swooped in their case.

Gurung and Ramos, through the NUPL, also sought to become among the petitioners against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, but the SC junked their petition, citing the ongoing trial court case against them.

During the oral arguments, Solicitor General Jose Calida also claimed the Aeta farmers wished to withdraw their petition-in-intervention alleging that they were forced to sign it. NUPL quickly denied the accusation of coercion.

Lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office then assisted in the filing of their affidavit, as endorsed by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in Zambales.

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