Arrested development

Published December 19, 2020, 12:08 AM

by Tonyo Cruz


Tonyo Cruz
Tonyo Cruz

The Philippine Bar Association this week said it is concerned that certain courts have become “warrant factories”. While the country’s largest voluntary lawyers’ group did not specify the particular courts, its statement indirectly referred to the mass arrest on Human Rights Day of six labor organizers and a journalist.

Press reports said Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89 issued the warrants against labor organizers Dennise Velasco, Rodrigo Esparago, Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz, Joel Demate, and Jaymie Gregorio Jr., and journalist Lady Ann Salem.

They were arrested on December 10, in separate police operations where law enforcers searched their homes and claimed to have found bombs and explosives.

It wasn’t the first time the judge issued a number of warrants against activists.

In 2019, the police arrested 57 activists in Bacolod and Manila based on warrants also issued by the same judge. Among those arrested based on the court warrants were Reina Mae Nasino who gave birth in July 2020 while in detention, and community journalist Anne Krueger.

Human rights lawyer Maria Sol Taule has written extensively on the use, or misuse, of search warrants against activists.

According to Taule, search warrants have become the new favorite and convenient tool of government to pin down activists.

Taule said that “bags would magically contain guns or explosives, and the police can very well have them manipulated as they have effortless access to these pieces of evidence.”

Salem, the arrested and detained journalist from Manila Today, said that police made them stand facing the wall while the police search her home. The police later said they “discovered” guns, bombs, and explosives.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called the evidence and case against Salem “bogus.”

There are legal remedies to question the warrants, but Taule bewails that the swift filing of charges based on “manufactured pieces of evidence and concoction of perjured testimonies” have tended to “trap victims in a long and winding legal battle.”

Salem and the others now have to defend themselves from charges in the snail-paced justice system, seek to question the warrants, and also stop what they do – journalism in the case of Salem, and trade union organizing in the case of the labor organizers.

Top defense officials have publicly called for the disqualification of activist partylist representatives. Oddly, none of these activist lawmakers face any complaints before the House of Representatives. Courts have dismissed rebellion, murder, kidnapping, and illegal detention charges against them, citing lack of evidence or merit. Despite the slanderous and unfounded charges, Bayan Muna is soon to enter its 20th year of continuous service and undefeated partylist election in Congress.

There’s no indication that there would be no more arrests and no more red-tagging in the next few weeks or months. The National Task Force-End Communist Local Armed Conflict seems determined to wipe out all perceived communists, be they armed or unarmed. If they’re unarmed, they could magically possess arms whenever they apply for, obtain and enforce search warrants.

But the more some government agencies persecute activists and independent journalists, the more it elevates them in the public mind. The people are bound to ask, why are these persons being persecuted with the full might of the law? What crime did they commit to deserve such treatment?

Here, the Philippine Bar Association has an important and relevant reminder: “The Rule of Law requires a fair and just application even to those whose views we may disagree with. As justice is blind and favors none, so should her instruments not serve as tools for political persecution.”

“Whenever the fairness of our laws is not accorded those we vehemently disagree with, the perceived oppression only tends to fuel their cause and weaken our own,” said the association.