Sandiganbayan acquits cops, army generals in 'Morong 43' case

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan has acquitted 7 law enforcement officers from charges of violating the rights of a detained person over the alleged illegal detention of the "Morong 43" health workers in 2010.

The Sandiganbayan 7th Division granted the demurrer to evidence of army generals Jorge Segovia, Aurelio Baladad, Joselito Reyes, and Cristobal Zaragoza; and police officers Marion Balonglong, Allan Nobleza, and Jovily Cabading, which means they are acquitted without having to present their own evidence.

"The bond posted by accused for their provisional liberty during the pendency of these cases are ordered cancelled and returned to said accused, subject to any liability of bond. The Hold Departure Order (HDO) issued against accused in these cases is hereby recalled," said the 39-page decision promulgated on July 1, a copy of which was released to media on Friday, July 19.

The decision was penned by Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses ,with concurrences from Associate Justices Maria Theresa Dolores Gomez Estoesta and Georgina Hidalgo.

The decision

The law enforcement officers were acquitted because the court said the human rights lawyers who were barred from seeing the detained health workers were not proven to be the lawyers of choice.

The officers were charged of violating Republic Act 7437 or the Rights of Persons Arrested, Detained or Under Custodial Investigation.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), which also acted as private prosecutors in the case,  claimed their members were turned away by the officers when they tried to confer with the workers during detention.

The health workers, collectively known as the "Morong 43," were detained for 10 months after they were arrested for allegedly conducting explosives training inside a house in Morong, Rizal. The military accused the health workers of being communist rebels. (READ: NPA rebel killed in clash one of 'Morong 43' – military)

Charges for illegal possession of explosives against the health workers were ordered to be dropped by then-president Benigno Aquino III on December 10, 2010, Human Rights Day. The workers were freed later that month. 

The court pointed out that Section 4(b) of the law penalizes "any person who obstructs, prevents or prohibits any lawyer, any member of the immediate family of a person arrested, detained or under custodial investigation, or any medical doctor or priest or religious minister chosen by him or by any member of his immediate family or by his counsel, from visiting and conferring privately with him.." (Emphasis ours)

"The prosecution failed to prove that private complainants have counsel(s) of choice at the time of arrest and during detention, and that accused obstructed, prevented or prohibited said private complainants from conferring with their counsel of choice," said the Sandiganbayan.

"None of the private complainants testified that they have a counsel of choice when they were arrested and detained and that they requested from accused to allow them to confer with their counsel and that they were thereafter prevented from conferring with him," the decision added. 

'Legal fiction'

The NUPL slammed as "legal fiction" the acquittal of the officers.

In a statement Friday, the NUPL said: "We cannot help but feel frustrated that a matter of reality such as our being counsel to them from day one, which fact practically everybody knows, can be obliterated by the legal fiction that we were supposedly not their counsel of choice to start with."

During the trial, one of the Morong 43 said she had NUPL president Edre Olalia in mind while detained but said on the witness stand "she did not mention the name of said counsel to the investigating officers."

All the other health workers said on stand they did not have lawyers of choice at the time of detention.

"But more than the legal setback is its impact on the question of whether effective and timely domestic legal remedies to seek redress for rights violations are really available. After almost a decade since their illegal arrest, torture and detention, this is what the scarred Morong 43 ended up with," said the NUPL.

The NUPL said that at the time of detention, it was the families of the detained workers who asked for their help but that the families "did not have a piece of paper with them while they were given the most deceptive run-around at the gates of the military camp where the Morong 43 were meanwhile being tortured."

"Truth is indeed a stranger to legal fiction," said the NUPL.

Torture charges against the officers were dropped as early as the Ombudsman level.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), for its part, urged Olalia "to respect the decision of the court and avail of legal remedies available."

The AFP hailed the decision and said that the dismissal of the case against the retired and active military generals “further goes to show that the AFP abides by the mandates of the Bill of Rights.”

“While we are yet to obtain a copy of the Sandiganbayan decision and learned about it only from news reports, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is elated that justice is served for the respondent military (and police) Officers,” AFP spokesman Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo said on Saturday, July 20.  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.

image