Speeding up justice
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 3, 2018 - 12:00am

Kaya naman pala. So it can be done.

This was a common reaction to the resolution within six months of the murder case filed against several Caloocan policemen in connection with the execution of teenage Grade 11 student Kian Lloyd delos Santos.

Six months is the blink of an eye in the country’s judicial system. Even if you add the nine months of police and congressional probes and preliminary investigation before the killers’ court indictment, that was still lightning speed in adjudication by Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. of the Caloocan Regional Trial Court Branch 125.

We have a Speedy Trial Act, Republic Act 8493, passed way back in February 1998. But because the penalties are laughable (a fine of P10,000 and suspension for 30 days), the law has been largely forgotten. Now Azucena has shown that speedy trial is in fact possible.

Alongside the plaudits, however, are the suspicions. Did Malacañang have a hand in the swift resolution of the case?

Doubters think the case is just a fluke, meant to show that the criminal justice system is working in this country. This means there is no reason for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to step in and launch a full-blown investigation of Rodrigo Duterte on charges of crimes against humanity.

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It helped that Kian’s arrest was documented on CCTV, backed by witnesses’ testimonies and forensic evidence.

The resulting public outcry intensified with the discovery at around the same time of the remains of two more teenagers, both undoubtedly victims of torture and summary execution. Carl Angelo Arnaiz, 19, a grade school valedictorian and Makati Science High School graduate before he entered the University of the Philippines, and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman, just 14, went missing from their homes in Cainta, Rizal on the night of Aug. 17 – the same period when Kian was killed.

The body of Arnaiz was found in a morgue in Caloocan City 10 days later.

De Guzman, so battered and bruised his parents had trouble recognizing him, had his head wrapped in plastic and packing tape when the body was found floating in a creek in Gapan, Nueva Ecija on Sept. 5. Police insist that DNA tests show it isn’t De Guzman.

In November last year, the police Internal Affairs Service declared that Arnaiz was “intentionally killed” by Caloocan cops, who claimed the boy had fought back after being cornered when he robbed taxi driver Tomas Bagcal. The cabbie recanted his statement about the alleged robbery and has since disappeared.

The killings of the teenagers led to a slowdown in the brutal drug war and an end to the extensions of service of Ronald dela Rosa as Philippine National Police chief. He was replaced by the officer who sacked nearly the entire Caloocan police force (only one was retained) following the killings, Oscar Albayalde, at the time the PNP commander for Metro Manila.

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Chief public attorney Persida Rueda Acosta, whose office handled the prosecution of Kian’s killers, credited the speed of adjudication to the administrative order of the Supreme Court for continuous trial of all criminal cases. These include drug cases, cybercrimes, environmental offenses, disputes on intellectual property rights as well as criminal cases handled by family and commercial courts. Non-compliance will warrant disciplinary sanctions.

The revised implementing guidelines for the order took effect on Sept. 1, 2017, around the time that there was an outcry against the teenagers’ killings. Lawyer Gil Anthony Aquino of Centerlaw, however, said drug cases they are handling continue to move slowly in the Office of the Ombudsman.

Acosta and Aquino faced us on One News / Cignal TV’s “The Chiefs” last week. Acosta’s opening statement was that Kian’s death was not a case of extrajudicial killing or EJK.

The conviction of the three cops who were on an anti-drug sweep in Caloocan is also being regarded as proof that EJKs are being carried out, inspired by the fighting words of President Duterte, in the course of waging the drug war.

In fact, Acosta stressed, there are no EJKs, which she defines strictly as state-sponsored killings rather than the broader sense of being extrajudicial. If the killings are state-sponsored, she said, the state-funded Public Attorney’s Office wouldn’t be handling suspected EJK cases and the Department of Justice, where the PAO lodged the complaint against Kian’s killers, wouldn’t be conducting the preliminary investigations.

She disputed observations that even if there is no written order, Duterte’s statements encourage such killings.

Even if Kian’s case is just a fluke meant as a foil against the ICC, the cops accused of executing Arnaiz – PO1 Ricky Arquilita and Jeffrey Perez – may no longer be sure that their President who has been issuing verbal encouragement to kill, kill, kill, would back them up all the way.

Unless the President pardons Kian’s killers.

Azucena’s sentence is a straight reclusion perpetua without parole. Another guest on our TV show, Far Eastern University law school dean Mel Sta. Maria, noted that under the Constitution, a presidential pardon is possible after final conviction.

Duterte’s chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo has said no pardon is forthcoming for Kian’s killers. Will it change if the war on drugs is slowed down by cops’ fears of legal problems?

Besides continuous trial, authorities can show that abuses aren’t being tolerated, by enforcing in earnest the rule that if a cop is involved in a fatal shooting, the case should automatically be presented to a prosecutor, who would determine if there was reasonable cause for the use of lethal force or if the cop should face a criminal investigation. This assessment is not being done.

Acosta said these are not the first convictions of police officers for abuses related to the drug war. She promised to present others in lesser known cases.

For now, people are celebrating with caution the speedy conviction of three cops for a summary killing in the course of the drug war. The jury is still out on whether one conviction will serve as a deterrent against abuses.

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