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What I wish SC would ask about martial law

/ 12:16 AM June 15, 2017

I was looking forward to the oral arguments on the martial law petitions. After all, Congress chose to go on a long recess without jointly convening to discuss President Duterte’s proclamation of martial law. The hearings at the Supreme Court would be the only public investigation of the antecedent facts that led to Proclamation No. 216 which Mr. Duterte signed on the night of May 23, 2017.

I wanted the Supreme Court to ask the questions that I, an ordinary citizen, could not ask:

Did the military know of an organized plan by the Maute Group to attack Marawi City? How long had it known? If the military knew beforehand, why did it not secure Marawi to prevent the Maute Group from entering and gaining a foothold? How did the initial estimate of 50-100 Maute members already in Marawi as of May 23 grow into 1,000-plus terrorist fighters after the city was evacuated and the military started its offensive? Did the fighting really begin with a botched arrest of Isnilon Hapilon while he was seeking medical treatment in Marawi? Did a military response require a martial law declaration and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus? What makes this different from the Zamboanga siege in 2013 and the Butig takeover in November 2016? How does the government ensure protection of human rights?


I wanted those questions, and more, to be asked by the Supreme Court of the Commander in Chief, or his alter ego in the Department of National Defense, or the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or the chief of the Philippine National Police, or even the mayor of Marawi. They might have told us, and we would have been able to listen to their version of the facts that prompted martial law in Mindanao better than anyone among those who spoke before the high court. I wanted the high court to help confirm or quiet my doubts, or just plain spell the truth out for me while the prospect of a nationwide martial law hangs above my head.

Instead, we suffered the spectacle of lawyers debating with lawyers on the meaning of law in the abstract. Does anyone really care about the consequence of an outdated professional tax receipt number under a lawyer’s signature?

This is only the second time in history that the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on petitions questioning the declaration of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The first time was in September 1972, when then Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. and several others arrested under Presidential Decree No. 1081 applied for writs of habeas corpus to secure their release from military detention. They directly questioned the legality of martial law, administered by then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile.

If the Supreme Court must rule on the sufficiency of the factual basis of the declaration of martial law circa 2017, it should take a more active role in finding the facts by itself. It could summon essential witnesses, arrange all the pertinent evidence, and arrive at the best version of the truth behind the events leading to May 23, 2017.

There is precedent to the process I am proposing to the high court. In the case of Lansang v. Garcia (Dec. 11, 1971), the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus was subjected to judicial scrutiny. To inquire into the factual basis of the exercise of the presidential prerogative, the high court summoned the AFP chief of staff and his deputies to an en banc but closed-door hearing, with three selected attorneys for the petitioners present. The facts found in that hearing are embodied in the high court’s landmark decision.

In the next hearing, may it please the honorable justices of the Supreme Court to play citizen’s advocate by asking the important questions.

Lulu Reyes, a law professor at St. Louis University, says she plans to remain a student of law for the rest of her life.

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