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Court acquits 2 more activists arrested in 2019 'crackdown'

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Court acquits 2 more activists arrested in 2019 'crackdown'
This photo taken in May 2021 shows leaders and members of progressive groups and activists' kin filing a report before the Supreme Court detailing incidents where they said the rule of law has been weaponized against them.
JUCRA pool photo

MANILA, Philippines — A Manila court has acquitted Michael Bartolome and Cora Agovida, two activists arrested in late 2019 in a series of government raids on progressive groups, of charges of illegal possession of firearms and of explosives.

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 19 Presiding Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar cleared Agovida of women's group Gabriela and Bartolome of urban poor advocacy group Kadamay over the "failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt."

The court said in a November 24 ruling that "the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt Bartolome’s and Agovida’s ownership and possession of the firearms, ammunitions and explosives and their lack of license to own or possess them."

It said the government "failed to overcome the presumption of innocence which the accused enjoy."

This marks the latest court win for activists who were arrested following "roving" search warrants issued by Quezon City and Manila judges — a power that the Supreme Court restricted in August.

READ: Amid Bacolod arrests, SC reminds justices to 'be prudent' in issuing warrants

Elements of the crime accused

The two activists were arrested in early hours of Oct. 31, 2019. 

Police said that they recovered a .45 pistol loaded with six bullets and another .45 pistol loaded with seven bullets from the rented apartment the two were in.

Hand grenades were also confiscated from their house, police said.

The court said that in sustaining conviction for illegal possession of firearms and of explosives, three elements must be shown: Existence of the firearm, ammunition or explosive; ownership of said items; and lack of license to own or possess.

In the case against Bartolome and Agovida, the court said the prosecution established the first element but "anent the second element, several circumstances obtain in this case that cast reasonable doubt to prosecution’s claim that the firearms, ammunitions, and explosives were found in the possession of Bartolome and Agovida, during the implementation of the search warrants."

Inconsistencies

The court also said the searching team violated the “knock and announce” principle, where officers must first give the subjects notice, show their authority and demand that they be allowed entry.

The cops that testified the accused were informed of the search warrants when they were aleady inside the apartment unit.

"The manner by which the searching team entered the premises to be searched should not have been missed out in their affidavit, considering that the legality of the entry determines the reasonableness of the search that followed. It casts doubt on the accuracy and veracity of their testimonies in open court," it added.

The court also said the prosecution witnesses’ testimonies "are riddled with inconsistencies" as the cops that testified before the court gave different locations on where they found the pistols and the grenades, and these facts are an important aspect in the case.

"They significantly erode the credibility of the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses, juxtaposed against the forthright and consistent testimonies of the accused and their insistence that the evidence against them were planted," it added.

The court also said the chain of custody in handling the seized firearms and hand grenades were not duly established. There were also inconsistencies in the markings of the confiscated items, it added.

The court also said that the "prosecution failed to prove that Bartolome and Agovida had no license to possess or own any firearm, which negative fact may be established by the testimony or certification of a representative of the PNP Firearms and Explosive Unit."

Search warrants

Rights alliance Karapatan noted that the apartment of Agovida and Bartolome was among the houses and offices of progressive groups that were raided by the police in October to November, based on search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.

In the case against Bartolome and Agovida, Judge Malagar noted that the police officers who conducted surveillance for the application of the search did not testify before the court.

"Given the protestation of the accused, it behooved upon the prosecution to show that the search warrants were issued in accordance with the Constitution. It was even the defense who requested for the records of the application of the sarch warrants to be subpoenaed," the judge added.

Other activists who were arrested following the search warrant issued by Quezon City Judge Burgos-Villavert were freed after they questioned the validity of her issuance.

READ: Search warrant from QC that led to arrest of BAYAN activists in Bacolod quashed

Karapatan said that out of the 76 arrested following search warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert since 2019, there were 22 still in prison. Two others face charges but have been released on bail.

"These court decisions reaffirm the assertions of those unjustly arrested and detained that there were violations of their rights to due process, that evidence were planted against them and that the charges are all made up by a regime that desperately seeks to silence activists and defenders,” the rights alliance group said.

Following mounting pressure from progressive groups, the Supreme Court in August issued the Rules on the Use of Body-Worn Cameras.

The rules limited the power of Manila and Quezon City executive and vice executive judges to issue search warrants outside their jurisdiction, an authority that progressive groups claimed has been weaponized against activists.

NATIONAL UNION OF PEOPLES LAWYERS SEARCH WARRANT
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