CenterLaw: Philippine National Police’s worst nightmare
His clients are too terrified to prosecute policemen who shot their relatives in supposed drug raids.
Lawyer Joel Butuyan outlined to the Supreme Court during the “Oplan Tokhang” hearing on Nov. 21 why prosecution was impossible. But his solution could become the blueprint for anti-Tokhang cases all over the country.
Butuyan’s clients from the slums of San Andres Bukid, Manila, lack money to commute to the courthouse, much less prosecute.
And they lack evidence. Eyewitnesses to Tokhang deaths —the victims — are unavailable to testify.
Residents claim security cameras were shut off before several nighttime attacks. Police formed a perimeter in eight raids, shooing bystanders away with flashlights.
Before drug surrenderer Jack Lord was shot, his brother saw police order nearby stores to close shop.
When Ramon Rodriguez was shot, police guarding the door told relatives, “We were told to watch.” They heard gunshots and shouts of “That’s wrong!”
Police also detained relatives who witnessed or inquired about a death.
Reynaldo “JR” Javier Jr. was killed just as his wife went into labor. She and JR’s mother were detained, but she was allowed to leave to give birth the next day then returned to the jail.
And evidence appeared planted. Required forensic investigation was never done.
Writ of amparo
Butuyan leads Centerlaw, a team of young human rights lawyers founded in 2003. They solved the lack of evidence and unwillingness to prosecute by reframing the San Andres Bukid cases into a petition for a writ of amparo.
The writ of amparo is a special protection order created in 2007. A judge can issue it immediately because it orders protection, not to jail someone.
The strategy does not need the definitive evidence needed for a full trial. It can be enough for a lawyer to document survivors’ fear for their lives.
It is a brilliant, simple solution, a template easily copied in other cities.
Centerlaw’s test case was that of vegetable vendor Efren Morillo. Five armed men shot him and four garbage collectors as they played billiards near the Payatas dump in Quezon City on Aug. 21, 2016.
Morillo played dead and rolled into a ravine behind the house. He was eventually taken to the police station near Payatas.
He heard: “He’s tough. He was shot at 3 p.m. but he’s alive up to now.”
He was taken to East Avenue Medical Center at midnight.
One of the armed men later told reporters that he was Senior Insp. Emil Garcia and that his team just killed drug suspects and known robbers.
Police charged Morillo with assault.
Centerlaw took the rare chance to pilot its amparo strategy with an eyewitness who miraculously survived.
Gil Anthony Aquino and Cristina Antonio—admitted 2016 and 2015—transformed Morillo’s story into a heart-wrenching petition to the Supreme Court. (Aquino was captain of the UP Law team that won the Square Off TV debates in October 2014 and the Price Media Law Moot Court international competition in March 2015.)
The facts were so compelling that the police did not even contest the case. In just a week, the Supreme Court ordered them not to go within 1 kilometer of Morillo.
That was in January and it was a historic first win against Tokhang.
Centerlaw expanded its legal strategy by going to San Andres, which had 35 Tokhang deaths in 12 months. Lacking a miracle eyewitness, the lawyers painstakingly compiled affidavits from 39 residents and presented the killings as a systematic pattern.
Twenty-three of the 35 Tokhang deaths involved police. Twenty-four of the victims died during a “kill time”—between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Twenty-one died in their homes. Several of them were drug surrenderers or their relatives.
Centerlaw’s next innovation was a class suit. It argued that the right to security is a community right.
After Jerry Estreller Jr. and Randy Concordia were killed on Estrada Street, 19 relatives and neighbors slept on tables in a nearby market for three months.
When it rained, they slept in parked jeepneys. The neighborhood needs protection, not just the deceased, Butuyan argued.
He told the Supreme Court that police forced barangay captains to repudiate the suit and confront the lawyers.
Will the court grant?
Butuyan’s key challenge is that the Supreme Court does not try facts. Morillo’s win was an exception. The second case is more difficult.
But several justices appeared open. Justice Lucas Bersamin encouraged criminal charges so a trial court could take permanent jurisdiction over the case.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio spoke about command responsibility and crimes against humanity. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Justice Marvic Leonen suggested a privacy protection or habeas data order to remove Butuyan’s clients from drug lists.
Unlike Morillo’s win, the Supreme Court might forward the San Andres Bukid cases to Manila judges for review. But even this could inspire other young guns to replicate Centerlaw’s blueprint in suits all over the country.
One hopes police act to distinguish professionals from rogues in their own ranks. It is best for the country if they avoid their worst nightmare: a flood of human rights cases or, as Carpio has warned, a case in the International Criminal Court.
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