Francisco Santiago Jr. was recently acquitted of illegal drug charges by the Manila Regional Trial Court. This may appear to be a small, inconsequential case , but for the fact that Santiago’s vindication may, in time, have a pivotal impact on the Duterte administration’s war on drugs.
In its decision, the court upheld the motorized pedicab driver’s version of the grisly events that transpired in the wee hours of the morning of Sept. 13, 2016. Malate police had initially reported that Santiago and a certain George Huggins were shot dead during a buy-bust operation.
But while crime laboratory operatives were marking the bloody scene for needed evidence, Santiago, who was lying face down inside the yellow police line, slowly stirred. He raised his arms and then pleaded to be allowed to surrender, surprising everyone, including the police and media called to cover what had the cops had said was a consummated drug deal and another case of suspects who fought back (“nanlaban”).
From his hospital bed, Santiago, who struggled to speak because of his gunshot wounds, belied the claims of a drug deal on Aldecoa Street in Malate at 1:25 a.m. There was no buy-bust, he said; motorcycle-riding men had shot at them. The unfortunate Huggins died, but Santiago instinctively played dead for fear of his life—and lived to tell his story. He did not shoot at a cop, he insisted, and neither was he peddling “shabu” (crystal meth).
In a rare case of justice obtained against state forces in the current drug war, Manila RTC Branch 40 Judge Alfredo Ampuan—in a one-page decision dated Aug. 7, 2018—exonerated Santiago of police allegations that he fought back. The police narrative of the Sept. 13 event was “a little odd” and “runs counter to human experience,” declared Ampuan. Thus, “the court is not convinced that there was a legitimate buy-bust operation which gave rise to the shooting incident.”
Santiago was forthwith ordered released from the Manila City Jail, in time for him to celebrate the birthday of his youngest child, who was eagerly waiting for him at home.
Upon his release, Santiago said of the decision: “Napatunayan lang yung pagsisinungaling ng mga pulis (It proves the police were lying).”
Santiago’s case begs the question: How many more ordinary Filipinos like him are languishing in jam-packed city jails or dead outright from police operations—victims of spurious, unsupported accusations that carry with them the threat of swift death at the hands of law enforcers? Considering how the cops’ standard story line has been abused—suspected drug user/pusher was summarily killed because he or she engaged the police in a gun battle following a drug raid, or violently resisted arrest—one can only extrapolate from Santiago’s case that many more similar stories are out there.
Indeed, an exhaustive study by researchers from the Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University indicated that some 5,021 documented drug-related killings occurred in the first 16 months of Mr. Duterte’s presidency, of which more than half, or 2,753, were killed by police. Most of the fatalities were like Santiago—male and poor.
Santiago’s victory at the Regional Trial Court is a shaft of light in the darkness of the brutal drug war—a positive development that should encourage other Filipinos victimized by arbitrary and abusive police actions to muster the courage to seek official redress. It joins a few other important court victories that are helping puncture the overwhelming sense of impunity underlying the administration’s antidrug campaign.
In January 2017, for instance, the Supreme Court granted a writ of amparo to the family of alleged drug suspects killed in dreaded “tokhang” operations in Payatas in August 2016. This was followed in February by another writ of amparo or protection against local cops for the kin of individuals killed in relation to drugs.
Then, in December 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Philippine National Police to submit the records of the over 3,800 killings attributed to the drug war. The Center for International Law Manila, or Centerlaw, hailed the Supreme Court order as an “important step in the search for accountability for the killings in ‘tokhang’ operations.”
The arc of justice may take a while, but significant victories like Santiago’s affirm the hope that the hour of reckoning will nevertheless come, sooner than later.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.