Supreme Court Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo thinks judges should conduct an exhaustive “searching inquiry” before granting any petition of state agents for search or arrest warrants. Gesmundo emphasized that legal point, among others, in an interview conducted last week by the Judicial and Bar Council for applicants for the post of chief justice, thus keeping public attention focused on a life-and-death matter: that the issuance of warrants by executive judges in Metro Manila has lately resulted in the killing or mass arrest of activists, other dissenters, and members of progressive groups in various parts of the country.
The warrants have become “death warrants,” said legal luminaries including Antonio La Viña, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, and Domingo Cayosa, national president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, who cited the barbaric killing of nine activists during police raids in the Calabarzon region on March 7. The “Bloody Sunday” killings again raised the idea of a “warrant factory,” this time involving Manila Regional Trial Court First Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa and Branch 174 Judge Jason Zapanta, who issued three and at least one of the warrants, respectively, that covered the police operations.
This “warrant factory” charge was earlier directed at Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert, who is said to have issued warrants in the past two years that led to the arrest for illegal possession of firearms and explosives — that old reliable charge employed by state agents since martial law — of at least 70 rights advocates, peace consultants, labor and peasant organizers, and journalists nationwide. Villavert issued the warrants that led to the arrest of 60 activists in Negros and Manila, including the then pregnant Reina Mae Nacino who delivered her baby while in detention. (The baby, named River, was put in her grandmother’s custody; she died mere months into her life, away from her mother’s arms.)
It’s noteworthy that other judges have since voided certain warrants issued by Villavert: one that led to the arrest in Bacolod City in October 2019 of John Milton Lozande, secretary general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers, and another that led to the arrest of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago, who were among the seven taken during police raids in Manila on International Human Rights Day last year. Bacolod RTC Branch 42 Judge Ana Celeste Bernad said the warrant served on Lozande “failed to describe the place [to be searched] with particularity,” and Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing Ignacio declared the warrant served on Salem and Esparago “void for vagueness.”
In the flurry of killings of activists—marked for being “communists” and killed for supposedly resisting arrest—the Supreme Court is in fine position to act on a petition filed by the National Union of People’s Lawyers in December, in the wake of the operations undertaken by police as though to mark International Human Rights Day in their own way. (Kill all communist rebels, never mind human rights, President Duterte said early this month.) The petition seeks the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus for labor organizers Dennise Velasco and Joel Demate, and inquires whether: 1) the warrants served on those arrested were constitutional, and 2) it was opportune to review the Marcos-era doctrine that restricts activists’ access to the protective writs of habeas corpus and amparo.
It’s not clear from the office of Court Administrator Midas Marquez if such a review has even begun. But the IBP’s Cayosa has made another call: for the high court to review its 2004 circular allowing executive judges in Manila and Quezon City to issue warrants that can be served anywhere else in the country. Cayosa raised the point of urgency in connection with the Bloody Sunday raids, in which a warrant issued by Dela Rosa to cover the residence of Bayan-Cavite coordinator Emmanuel Asunción in the town of Rosario was also served at his home office in the town of Dasmariñas an hour away, where he was eventually shot dead. (The same judge issued a warrant used in a police raid in Panay in December, in which nine members of the indigenous Tumandok community opposing a dam project were killed.)
Now Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who recently admitted to the UN Human Rights Council the impunity with which state agents had waged the administration’s war on drugs, is saying that the activists killed on Bloody Sunday were engaged in legitimate dissent and that the police raids will be investigated. The public should demand immediate results.
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