Philippine judiciary

Judge says warrants ‘susceptible to abuse,’ frees 2 activists

Lian Buan
Judge says warrants ‘susceptible to abuse,’ frees 2 activists

ACQUITTED. Family members and friends of political prisoners Cora Agovida and Michael Tan Bartolome celebrate at the Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila on November 24, 2021, after a court acquitted them of charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Rappler

This brings to 24 the total number of activists cleared this year following irregularities in their arrests

A Manila judge on Wednesday, November 24, acquitted two activists of charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, bringing the total number of activists cleared of similar charges to 24 this year.

Ordered freed from a two-year detention are couple Michael Bartolome of Kadamay Manila and Cora Agovida of Gabriela-Manila, who were acquitted on Wednesday by Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 19 Judge Marlo Magdoza Malagar.

Bartolome and Agovida were waiting for their release as of posting.

“The irregularities in the implementation of the search warrants, evident from the prosecution’s evidence itself, brings the Court back to Bartolome and Agovida’s protestation at the very onset of these cases – that the application and issuance of the search warrants were improper and had no basis,” said Judge Malagar.

Bartolome and Agovida were jailed for two years since they were arrested in a massive crackdown in October 2019 that saw the arrest of over 60 activists in Bacolod and Manila, many of whom were eventually also cleared.

While detained, Bartolome and Agovida were separated from their two minor children, one of whom is a toddler.

“While this latest legal victory in a streak of successful pushbacks brings so much solace, how can you really repair the irreparable tangibles of time lost, lives endangered, names sullied, advocacies demonized, and reputations stigmatized?” said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers.

By Rappler’s count, Bartolome and Agovida are the 23rd and 24th people cleared and freed this year alone by a court in a search case.

A search case means those who were arrested during the implementation of a search warrant, which yielded evidence of illegal guns and grenades – evidence that activists claimed were planted by law enforcement.

They are the 4th and 5th people to be acquitted on merits after trial, while the other 19 had their search warrants voided for constitutional violations. Many of these voided search warrants came from one person – Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert.

Villavert also issued the search warrant for Bartolome and Agovida.

Manila’s Judge Malagar acquitted Bartolome and Agovida for the arresting cops’ violation of protocols in implementing the search warrant.

Policemen, said Malagar’s decision, forced the door open, made inconsistent testimonies on the exact location of where the gun and grenade were allegedly found, and were delayed by a month in turning over the evidence for examination which opened the possibility of tampering.

‘Susceptible to abuse’

Although the Manila judge did not discuss the constitutionality of Villavert’s search warrant, she nevertheless noted that if the possibility of planted evidence “was not foreclosed, what was then the basis for the application of the search warrants against them?”

Judge Malagar said the applicants for the search warrant never testified in court.

“It is a matter of judicial notice that the application and implementation of search warrants are susceptible to abuse. A number had even resulted in death under disputed circumstances, that these judicial orders had been dubbed by some as death warrants,” said Malagar.

Policemen were also executing search warrants when they killed 9 activists in simultaneous raids in the Calabarzon region in March, now known as the Bloody Sunday incident. Law enforcement claimed the activists resisted the search and arrest.

In October, a Batangas court voided one of the search warrants in those raids.

“There must be some concrete and effective legal way to seek concrete redress for such broken situation,” said Olalia.

The Supreme Court responded to this problem by scrapping the power of Manila and Quezon City judges to issue search warrants outside of their jurisdictions, and by requiring policemen to wear body cameras when implementing any type of warrant.

The Philippine National Police had difficulty procuring enough body cameras to comply with the SC directive. – 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.