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09:14 PM June 21st, 2013

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By: Solita Collas-Monsod, June 21st, 2013 09:14 PM

Better late than never. I’ve got to hand it to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. She did not waste any time trying to excuse herself or her department, or attempting to cover up. Instead, she described it as “an unfortunate and deplorable case of violation of the constitutional and human rights of the respondent,” and then immediately ordered an investigation to determine if any official is criminally liable for the “inordinate and inexcusable delay in resolving the automatic review of the Urbina case.”

I am, of course, referring to what happened to Joanne Urbina, who was arrested in 2008 presumably for drug possession and then left to rot in police custody for more than five years without any charges being filed against her.  The rule apparently is that charges must be filed within 24 hours after the preliminary investigation is terminated. And the preliminary investigation was indeed terminated, because the person arrested with Urbina was cleared.

One wishes that a smidgen of De Lima’s forthrightness had rubbed off on some of her subordinates at the Department of Justice. No such luck. Because instead of admitting to and apologizing for their five-year-long error when Urbina’s case came to light (she had petitioned for habeas corpus with the Court of Appeals), they tried to make up for lost time by filing the case against her (violation of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act). Why the Quezon City Regional Trial Court even entertained their suit, when it was filed five years after the deadline had passed, is beyond the comprehension of my nonlegal mind.

The news reports also give one to understand that a government lawyer (reportedly from the Office of the Solicitor General) was prepared to justify the delay to the Court of Appeals, but the justices weren’t in the mood to listen.

Really. Is it too much to expect a scenario where, instead of waiting for the Court of Appeals hearing on the petition for habeas corpus to be scheduled, government lawyers—either from the OSG or the DOJ—admitted their fault?  Why this waste of the court’s time and of the people’s money?

This is not to say that Urbina is not guilty—unless, of course, the drugs were planted on her. But the CA had the right of it when it called this cavalier treatment of her constitutional and human rights “intolerable,” “unreasonable,” and smacking of “persecution rather than prosecution.”

But the CA did it rather too brown when it said that what happened to Urbina is “shockingly unimaginable.” People familiar with our justice system say that it is actually not uncommon—except that the victims of such treatment generally don’t have the financial resources required to get legal redress, or are ignorant of their legal rights, or worse, afraid to complain for fear of police retaliation. They point to  police stations, for example, where “suspects” are not formally charged but remain there for years and used as unpaid houseboys and gofers, presumably in exchange for their board and lodging.

Compared to Urbina’s case, and the other cases that never even see the light of day (in court),  the incarceration of people like Sergio Osmeña Valencia, or for that matter Luis Quirino Gonzalez, may be considered “relatively harmless.” But the operative word there is “relatively.” While these grandsons of former Philippine presidents were incarcerated for much less than five years—Gonzalez for 486 days and Valencia from Oct. 4, 2012, to June 7, 2013—“relatively harmless” is not a term they would use to describe their ordeal.

Gonzalez was accused of murdering his stepbrother, and he probably would still be in jail now except for what has to be a fortuitous circumstance, in spite of its tragic overtones: At the time of the murder, he was in the basement of Makati Medical Center, having OD’d on drugs—and having been rushed to that hospital by ambulance, with loads of documentary and testimonial evidence to that effect. But it took all of 486 days for the Philippine justice system to accept that fact. And probably millions of pesos in legal fees.

Valencia is accused of plunder. The charge is ridiculous (see my columns on Nov. 24 and Dec. 15 last year), and obviously, the original panel of investigators constituted by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales thought so, too: They recommended the dismissal of the charges. But Morales, for some unknown reason, reversed that recommendation, and the Sandiganbayan accommodatingly found probable cause, ordering Valencia and his coaccused arrested.

In a nutshell, Valencia filed for bail, which the government prosecutors opposed (I am told that they were quite apologetic about it—but in private). The prosecution’s claim that the evidence of guilt on the part of Valencia et al. was strong was eventually turned down by the Sandiganbayan in a resolution promulgated on June 6, 2013, and Valencia was released on bail the next day, which means that Valencia was under police custody (in the same place as Urbina—Camp Crame) for 185 days.

I read the Sandiganbayan decision written by Associate Justice Rafael Lagos, with a separate concurring opinion by Associate Justice Rodolfo Ponferrada. The latter’s less-than-one-page concurrence notes that the prosecution’s principal witness failed to establish either the presence or the whereabouts of any ill-gotten wealth, much less that it was amassed in the first place.

Which leads to my nonlawyer’s question: Then why not dismiss the charges out of hand? What a waste of time and money—just to feed the desire for revenge. Carpio Morales can maybe think about doing a De Lima.

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