Office of the Solicitor General

It’s not over: SolGen goes to Supreme Court to pin freed journalist

Jairo Bolledo

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It’s not over: SolGen goes to Supreme Court to pin freed journalist

FREED. Journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago were released in detention a month after the court dismissed trumped-up charges against them.

Manila Today

(1st UPDATE) Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra also asks the High Court to remand the case to a lower court for continuation of the trial on the case's merits

MANILA, Philippines – The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), the government’s primary legal counsel, is challenging the acquittal of journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago before the Supreme Court.

In a petition for certiorari dated September 25, the OSG headed by Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, former President Rodrigo Duterte’s justice secretary, asked the SC to nullify the past two decisions of the Court of Appeals (CA) that affirmed Salem and Esparago’s acquittal. A petition for certiorari is used to seek a review of the decision of a lower court.

The OSG is assailing the following CA decisions:

  • January 2023 decision – affirmed the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 209 decision to quash the search warrants issued against Salem and Esparago
  • September 6 decision – dismissed the government’s motion for reconsideration, which sought the reversal of the January decision.

Aside from this, Guevarra is also asking the High Court to remand the case to a trial court for the continuation of trial on the merits of the case. This means that Guevarra wants to revive the case and continue the trial that will be based on facts and evidence. Salem and Esparago were freed due to quashed warrants.

The OSG, in its petition before the SC, reiterated four arguments it already raised before the CA. Deciding on the same set of arguments, the appellate court earlier said that the issue raised on the inconsistent statements and testimonies of the witnesses, including the improper implementation of search warrants, “had been considered, weighed, and passed upon by the Court in its Decision.”

In affirming Salem and Esparago’s acquittal, the CA gave weight to the “failure of police to provide clean and consistent testimonies regarding material information.”

On the warrants’ legality, Guevarra argued in the OSG’s petition that the search warrant used against Salem and Esparago satisfied the legal requirement of specificity. The OSG claimed that Search Warrant No. 6044 described the firearms subject of the operation in “sufficient detail.”

But the CA was not convinced earlier and said the warrant “should have indicated the color of the firearm or any marking or engraving that could describe the object.”

Guevarra also argued that a search warrant is severable, therefore, the “general description, if any, of some items will not invalidate the entire warrant.” He added that the implementation of warrants was in accordance with the law.

It’s not over: SolGen goes to Supreme Court to pin freed journalist

Lastly, Guevarra argued that the alleged inconsistent testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses only refer to minor and relevant details and should not have affected the court’s ruling. However, the CA earlier agreed with Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209’s decision that probable cause was not met due to inconsistencies and contradictions in the sworn statements and testimonies of the witnesses.

Salem and Esparago, along with 5 other activists, were arrested on December 10, 2020, during a celebration of International Human Rights Day. In February 2021, Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio cleared them of the charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. (READ: Crackdown? Same QC judge issues warrants vs 58 activists in Manila, Bacolod)

Quisumbing-Ignacio said the search warrant issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert was null and void, so the firearms and explosives allegedly seized from the two were inadmissible or could not be used as evidence. On March 5, 2021, Salem and Esparago walked free from jail.

Not the first time

This is not be the first time that the OSG is challenging a case where an activist or a staunch critic of the government secured a victory.

Just last September, Guevarra also filed a petition for certiorari with the CA to challenge the latest acquittal of former Senator Leila de Lima in one of her drug cases. Guevarra filed the petition on the ground of grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of the trial court judge.

In May this year, Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara cleared De Lima and former aide Ronnie Dayan in one of their drug cases. De Lima has one more pending drug charge.

Like De Lima, several activists were arrested and detained under the Duterte administration.

Some of them were released after getting the court to side with them, and the Philippine government has lost in many of its cases – 30 to be exact – against them on the ground of invalid warrants, like in Salem and Esparago’s case.

Guevarra told Rappler that his office has no policy to appeal cases against activists dismissed in lower courts. 

“The OSG does not have any policy on appeals from decisions dismissing cases against any group of persons, including activists. The OSG determines the merits of each case and acts in accordance with such determination.” –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.