activist groups in PH

4 activists stand trial as courts clash over ‘Human Rights 7’

Lian Buan

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4 activists stand trial as courts clash over ‘Human Rights 7’

HUMAN RIGHTS 7. Families and lawyers of the so-called Human Rights 7 in a recent press conference.

Screenshot from Facebook Livestream

Lady Ann Salem's fellow activists fail to convince other courts to void the search warrants against them

Four activists stand trial for illegal possession of firearms and explosives after two local courts upheld the search warrants against them, a decision that clashed with a Mandaluyong court that previously freed and cleared two of their fellow activists on the same charges.

Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 50 Judge Bibiano Colasito denied the motion to quash of activist Joel Demate in an order on April 22, while Quezon City RTC Branch 91 Judge Kathleen Rosario Dela Cruz-Espinosa denied the joint motion to quash of Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Riaselle Astudillo, and Jaymie Gregorio in an order dated April 12.

Both orders were obtained by media on Tuesday, May 25.

The four are among the seven activists arrested on Human Rights Day in various areas in Metro Manila in December 2020, all on the power of search warrants by QC Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.

Two of the seven were journalist Lady Ann Salem and unionist Rodrigo Esparago, who were freed and cleared in March after Mandaluyong Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio voided the search warrants of Villavert and declared the firearms and explosives inadmissible evidence. Ignacio was red-tagged after that.

The 7th activist is Denisse Velasco, who filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court, framed in a way that it asked the Court to look also at the rules of writs. 

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Presumption of regularity

Ignacio voided Villavert’s warrants because of inconsistencies in the testimonies of the police’s informants.

For the four, however, the other judges took a different view.

Cruz, Astudillo, and Gregorio’s search warrants were based on the same informant, a certain Patrolman Ernie Ambuyoc. In the cases of Salem and Esparago, the Mandaluyong judge decided that Ambuyoc’s testimonies were inconsistent.

But QC Judge Espinosa said she “finds that the collective testimonies of the witnesses would prompt a reasonably discreet person to believe that the offense was committed.”

“This court finds that the subject search warrant was issued based on probable cause, after searching and probing personal examination under oath,” said the QC judge.

In Manila in the case of Demate, Judge Colasito said the transcripts showed that Villavert asked “several clarificatory questions,” and “in fact the questions were lengthy and somehow elaborate.”

Judge Colasito also said that there has to be presumption of regularity in Villavert’s actions. “This is so because there is no hard and fast rule to be followed and in fact, the issuing court had a wide latitude of discretion on how to determine probable cause,” said Colasito.

“To recapitulate, even if the said court had shortcomings in its conduct of the inquiry, still this court has to defer to the former’s findings because as a rule, great respect must be accorded to it as it is presumed to have regularly performed its duties,” Colasito added.

For activists, the best solution would be for the Supreme Court to revise the rules on search warrants, including disallowing judges to issue search warrants for places outside of their jurisdictions.

They also asked the Court to look at wholesale application for warrants, which activists said imply that there could be no thorough examination if dozens of searches are applied for, and granted, in just a day.

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Specific search warrant

In the case of Cruz, Astudillo, and Gregorio in Quezon City, Judge Espinosa also presumed regularity on the part of the policemen who implemented the search, saying that there’s no complaint filed against the cops.

Saying that the search was witnessed by two barangay officials, Espinosa said “at this stage of the proceedings, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties accorded to police officers could be said to have been overcome.”

The activists also claimed that some of the guns seized were not specified in the warrant. The warrant listed cal .45 pistols but the search yielded cal. 9mm pistols.

Judge Espinosa said the two kinds of pistols “are deemed to be of similar nature, both being small firearms and have a direct relation to the offense for which the warrant was applied for.”

Citing a Supreme Court case, the judge said “technical precision is not required” because “if this were the rule, it would be virtually impossible for the applicants to obtain a warrant.”

The additional evidence was seized in plain view, said the judge. She ruled these were admissible. –

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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 or tweet @lianbuan.