CJ Sereno to Ateneans: Make sure past Martial Law horrors not repeated

MANILA, Philippines – Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said on Friday, May 26, that the fate of the country after the declaration of martial law in Mindanao will depend on the people's own actions, making sure the horrors of the past will not be repeated.

Sereno said this in a speech during commencement exercises of Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City on Friday. Sereno, who obtained her undergraduate degree in Economics from Ateneo, said she "discarded her prepared speech" to talk about martial law before new graduates.

"Suffice it to say that the martial law power is an immense power that can be used for good, to solve defined emergencies; but all earthly powers when abused can result in oppression," Sereno said.

According to the Chief Justice, if President Rodrigo Duterte "avoids the gross historical sins" of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, his martial law in Mindanao "can reap the benefits of the legitimate use of the provisions of martial law."

Duterte, before flying home from Russia on Wednesday, said"Martial law is martial law ha. It will not be any different from what the president, Marcos did. I'd be harsh." 

"As we face the days following President Duterte's declaration of martial law in Mindanao, it behooves us to ask what we can do in the present, with the time that is given to us, to ensure that the horrors of martial law that followed the 1972 declaration do not happen again," Sereno said. (READ: Questions you need to ask about martial law in Mindanao)

1987 Constitution

Sereno highlighted the provisions in the 1987 Constitution that limit Duterte's powers during martial law.

"The 1987 Constitution clearly says a state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus," Sereno said.

While it did not come automatically, Duterte has nevertheless suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao, which gives the military the power to arrest without warrant individuals suspected to have a direct connection to the rebellion.

After the declaration of martial law in Mindanao on Tuesday, May 23, Sereno immediately issued an advisory to courts in Mindanao to "remain open as far as their local circumstances may allow."

Although warrantless arrests are authorized during martial law under specific guidelines, the law states that any person arrested should be judicially charged within 3 days. Otherwise, he or she should be released.

On Thursday, May 26, Davao City cops rounded up a couple of hundred individuals and considered them "persons of interest" until they were able to provide identification.

Solicitor General Jose Calida, who is in Davao City where Duterte held a Cabinet meeting late Thursday night to discuss martial law, said in a press conference on Friday that the individuals were just invited for questioning, and consequently released.

"Will this martial law declaration bring back the human rights violations and the depredations that characterized the Martial Law regime of 1972?....Will our voices still be heard? The answer, my dear graduates, is 'It depends,'" Sereno said.

The safeguarding of the rights of the people during today's martial law depends, she said, on Duterte and his government agents' willingness "to take sufficient care to abide by the Constitution and the laws."

Sereno added, in a call to all Filipinos: "Do your part to ensure that this declaration of Martial Law does not imperil your future." (READ: DND to AFP: Uphold rule of law, human rights in Mindanao)

Under the 1987 Constitution, the declaration of martial law can be challenged before the Supreme Court (SC). The High Court will then have to review if there was sufficient basis for the declaration and issue a decision within 30 days.

"From a legal point of view, it will be the SC who shall have the last say," lawyer and political analyst Tony La Viña told Rappler in an earlier telephone interview.

Calida, who will have to defend Duterte if ever a petition is filed before the SC, said he is "confident that we will be able to prove that there is sufficient basis for the [declaration of] martial law."

Never again

Sereno also recalled the horrors during Marcos' Martial Law.

"Marcos failed our people. Those of us who were alive at the time bore witness to the human rights atrocities and the corruption caused by such absolute power," Sereno said.

The Chief Justice added: "The Martial Law period of 1972 put the Philippines in an economic tailspin that saw us go from the second most vibrant economy in Asia to its sick man...the excessive foreign borrowing during the Marcos regime stagnated development and became one of the root causes of widespread poverty, leaving the economy in a precarious state."

It was the SC who approved the hero's burial for the late Marcos in a split decision in November 2016, a decision from which Sereno dissented, along with Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza, and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa. (READ: Marcos burial: What did the dissenting SC justices say?)

Sereno praised the Ateneans' participation in the pockets of protest across Metro Manila which came after the SC decision, and renewed calls for the accountability of the Marcoses for the human rights abuses which occurred during his 9-year martial rule.

"Last year, when the history of our nation was subjected to attempts at revision, you were among the first to speak up...As a fellow Atenean, I understood that this passionate outpouring of righteous anger sprang from a deep understanding of what it means to be a person for others," Sereno said.

In past speeches, Sereno had slammed what she referred to as a rising culture of impunity and a gross disregard for due process. On Friday before young Ateneans, Sereno repeated her call.

"We are not fighting a person or an establishment but a culture, a pattern that pervades our society today. It is a pattern of apathy, rage, and despair: one that began when people learned to tolerate wrong, stopped hoping, and ceased caring," Sereno said.

The Chief Justice added: "I urge you to speak out with truth even against the overwhelming tide of popular opinion and reach out to the oppressed and disenfranchised. When you face threats to the sanctity of human rights or the stability of our democracy, give your all to protect these freedoms. Give your all to protect our nation and our people." – 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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