SC barred Aetas from anti-terror law case to give way to lower court trial

Two Aetas who were charged and detained under the feared anti-terror law have been barred to join the petitions against the controversial measure before the Supreme Court to give way to their case at the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court.

"The reason for the denial of the petition in intervention by the Supreme Court is because there is already a pending case before the trial court," Court Spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka said on Wednesday, February 10.

Hosaka said there were no further details available but Rappler's source said the petition for intervention was deemed to have run against the hierarchy of courts. Under this general principle, some cases cannot go directly to the Supreme Court and must go through the trial courts first.

Aetas Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos have been detained at the Olongapo District jail since August 2020. They are accused of committing terrorism for allegedly shooting a soldier dead in an encounter at Sitio Lumibao, Barangay Buhawen in San Marcelino, Zambales. 

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story referred to one of the Aetas as Jasper Gurung. This was been corrected.)

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) submitted the Aetas' petition for intervention, in an attempt to boost the legal standing of the Supreme Court cases on the constitutionality of the law. 

Oral arguments discussed having an "actual case" to make the petitions ripe, and the Aetas' case was seen to provide that cure. 

What does this mean?

Because of the denial of the petition, we may be looking at a scenario where the Supreme Court will accept a facial challenge on free speech issues only, said former Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo who teaches Constitutional Law at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Facial challenge is a challenge that doesn't need an actual case to be ripe, but it's generally just allowed with free speech cases.

Since the Aetas are accused of shooting the soldier, it "may be seen as presenting questions of conduct, not speech," said Fajardo.

But there's a way for this case to be ripe for the Supreme Court, said Fajardo, and that is for the defense lawyers to raise the constitutionality of the law in the lower court.

If it's denied by the judge, then they can go to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court.

"By then, the Supreme Court can exercise its power of automatic review of capital criminal cases," said Fajardo.

In the event that more people are charged, there is a possibility that there would be different rulings from different trial courts.

"In which case it will be a race among those cases, i.e., which one will reach the Supreme Court first. The other cases will benefit from a favorable judgment from the highest court," said Fajardo.

Who forced Aetas?

Solicitor General Jose Calida had told the Supreme Court during the oral arguments on Tuesday that the Aetas withdrew their petition for intervention and supposedly said that the NUPL just forced them and paid them P1,000 in relation to the petition. This was before Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta told Calida that theCourt had dismissed the petition anyway.

Calida attempted to cancel the oral arguments with that bombshell but the High Court's decision to junk the petition superseded it, and the oral arguments pushed through on Tuesday.

NUPL's Central Luzon chapter said on Wednesday that they are still the lawyers on record for Gurung and Ramos, contrary to Calida's claim that the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) in Zambales is representing the Aetas. 

"Unless a proper pleading or motion is duly filed, confirmed as voluntary, and granted by the court accordingly, the NUPL-CL still technically remains their counsel of record. But if they wish to change counsel, which is their absolute right, we will fully respect their decision," said the NUPL.

NUPL-CL said the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) frequented the Aetas in jail without their knowledge, and without the presence of their lawyers. Calida earlier said that the NCIP and PAO obtained the affidavits of withdrawal from the Aetas.

But the NUPL's national office questioned how the Aetas can say in an affidavit that they were forced to sign when both of them cannot write. "Junior readily affixed his thumbmark while Jasper affixed his after he was able to talk to some of his elder relatives by phone," said the NUPL.

In the pleadings that the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) submitted to the Supreme Court, the Aetas claimed that the military trespassed into their ancestral land and allegedly tortured them for 6 days to confess to being communist rebels. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has refuted this claim.

Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr, spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), has threatened an Inquirer.net journalist of prosecution under the anti-terror law for allegedly aiding terrorists over her report on the NUPL's pleading.

Gurung and Ramos appeared in a press conference on Wednesday organized by the NTF-ELCAC, who said that they would be dropping the NUPL as they now preferred the PAO.

"Sila po ang dapat tumulong sa amin pero sila ang nagpapahirap sa amin (They should be the ones helping us, but instead they're making it difficult for us)," Gurong said, referring to NUPL.

"Ang gusto pong hahawak ng kaso namin sir, NCIP at saka PAO po, sir, kasi nakikita po namin sir, dahil sila po ung handang tumulong sa amin, sir (We want the NCIP and the PAO to handle our case, sir, because in our opinion, they're the ones ready to help us, sir)," Gurong said.

NUPL Central Luzon's Boni Cruz said they were able to meet Gurung and Ramos Wednesday morning, adding that the two did express intent to change lawyers. Cruz said they would respect that decision, but that a change in lawyers has to be finalized in court. A hearing is scheduled Thursday, February 11.

Cruz said Gurung and Ramos appeared distraught because of too many people talking to them. Gurung and Ramos' wives, both minors, are also in jail for illegal possession of firearms and explosives rooted from the same encounter. It's why they are earnest to find the people who can best help them, said NUPL's Julian Oliva.

Cruz said it's the NCIP who had given the Aetas false hopes that they would be freed if they withdraw, and doubts the military would desist from pursuing the charges.

Unethical?

The NUPL said it has had "previous similar experience" of PAO interceding with their clients.

Calida, in fact, had used this tactic before and got fishermen to withdraw their signatures from a petition suing the government for neglect of the West Philippine Sea. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), who initially represented the fishermen, withdrew their petition soon after. The IBP lawyers were warned in that case.

No such warning had been issued yet to the NUPL over the Aetas issue.

Prisoners' rights group Kapatid said the Supreme Court should instead castigate Calida for unethical tactics.

“The Solicitor General should be castigated and even made to resign because no People’s Tribune should be allowed to get away with what he has been doing to debase a high position of trust," said Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lim.

Rights group Karapatan said the Supreme Court should "scrutinize every single word and detail of Calida’s tale."

"Gurung and Ramos are detained inside a police detention facility where the police as well as other State forces can readily access them anytime.If there is anyone who coerced them into doing or signing anything, they are certainly not human rights lawyers of NUPL," said Karapatan.

"The most important question would be: Who benefits from this withdrawal of the petition for intervention? The answer is quite apparent – only those raring to use the draconian law with the intent to infringe on rights and liberties and quash political dissent will have the most to gain from this sleazy act," Karapatan added. – with reports from Randy Datu/Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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