Meet the lawyers fighting Bikoy's sedition complaint

SEDITION COMPLAINT. The country's noted lawyers Neri Colmenares, Florin Hilbay, Erin Tau00f1ada, Rene Saguisag, Chel Diokno, and Edre Olalia are present during the DOJ's first hearing on the inciting to sedition complaint against the opposition on August 9, 2019. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

SEDITION COMPLAINT. The country's noted lawyers Neri Colmenares, Florin Hilbay, Erin Tau00f1ada, Rene Saguisag, Chel Diokno, and Edre Olalia are present during the DOJ's first hearing on the inciting to sedition complaint against the opposition on August 9, 2019.

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Excitement, not tension, was palpable at the Department of Justice (DOJ) executive lounge on Friday morning, August 9, for the first hearing on the highly-political inciting to sedition complaint against key members of the opposition and high figures in the Catholic Church.

Only a handful of the 36 respondents were present. None of the political superstars, such as Vice President Leni Robredo, were there. But for the legal world, the hearing was nothing short of star-studded.

Staunch martial law critic and former senator Rene Saguisag attended for his client, Senator Risa Hontiveros. Saguisag and Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno represented martial law victims during the military rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

Ka Pepe's son Chel, himself a human rights lawyer, reunited with his fellow Otso Diretso senatorial candidates, Erin Tañada and Florin Hilbay, during the hearing. The 3 are all lawyers and are all respondents in the complaint.

Diokno's lawyer is Arno Sanidad of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG). Sanidad has defended rebels from the left and the right, first representing communists and then military rebels in the Reform the Armed Forces Movement.

Sanidad was the one who got the ball rolling in what would have otherwise been a procedural hearing on Friday. (READ: Looking at 'inciting to sedition' in the time of Duterte)

"Just for the record, I just want a clarification as to what is the authority of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) to be the lead counsel in this case," Sanidad said, bringing up the mood in the room full of noted lawyers.

The question on the OSG's mandate to participate in a criminal prosecution became that day's main story. It was the first time that the OSG's mandate was being questioned in a legal proceeding. The DOJ required the OSG to explain in 5 days.

Biting words

After Sanidad spoke, Saguisag stood up to adopt the same manifestation. He added, "The OSG should be the tribune of the people, not tuta (lapdog) of this administration," rousing the people in the room.

In a statement later that day, Solicitor General Jose Calida slammed Saguisag's statement, calling it "gutter talk."

"Mr Saguisag should know better than to resort to gutter talk against his colleagues, with whom he has the duty to treat with courtesy, fairness, and candor," Calida said.

In that moment at the DOJ, Assistant Solicitor General Angelita Miranda – one of OSG's top guns – stood up and said, "Let's be professionals here," but the DOJ panel allowed Saguisag to finish his manifestation.

Senator Leila de Lima's lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, made a more pointed opposition to the OSG's "tribune of the people" defense. Tacardon has been taking on the DOJ since 2017 for De Lima's 3 counts of drug charges at the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court.

In fact, on Friday, Tacardon had a morning hearing for De Lima in Muntinlupa, but instead chose to attend the DOJ hearing for the sedition complaint. 

"If and when any matter resolved by this honorable panel is raised in the Court of Appeals, it is still the OSG who will represent this panel," Tacardon said, pointing out conflict of interest in the OSG's insistence in taking part in a criminal prosecution.

The OSG's main mandate is to represent the government in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals in all criminal proceedings. 

Hilbay, the former solicitor general before Calida, said later during an interview that the OSG under him "never" meddled in criminal investigations because it violated the legal spirit behind the creation of the office in the first place.

"Gusto ng Kongreso, ng batas, na malaya ang Opisina ng Tagausig Panlahat na magdesisyon sa mga apela sa criminal cases. Kung nakikialam na siya sa imbestigasyon pa lang, wala na 'yung kalayaan na 'yun, masisira 'yung intensiyon ng batas," Hilbay said.

(The Congress, and the law, envisioned the Office of the Solicitor General to be free to decide appeals in criminal cases. If it meddles as early as the investigation level, it loses that freedom, and it goes against the law's intent.)

Legal heavyweights

Not present on Friday but another legal heavyweight in this case is constitutionalist Christian Monsod, who will represent Bishop Teodoro Bacani, one of the 7 priests and bishops named in the inciting to sedition complaint.

Vice President Leni Robredo's lawyer is Marlon Manuel, a human rights lawyer who has 20 years experience in public interest lawyering. He represented Marawi residents in questioning President Rodrigo Duterte's martial law in Mindanao.

Neri Colmenares and Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) were there on Friday for "moral support," and lightly joked about their inclusion in the false Malacañang-backed Bikoy matrix but exclusion in the sedition complaint.

Also spotted was Far Eastern University Law Dean Mel Sta Maria, who later posted on Facebook: "It's always great to see this small community of lawyers who have decided to journey the 'road less traveled' in the law profession. We may not be working in airconditioned and carpeted law offices, but we like what we are doing for what we believe is good for our country."

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV is still represented by Rey Robles, a veteran lawyer who got Trillanes out of the amnesty broil brought onto the senator by Calida and Duterte in late 2018.

The respondents themselves were noted lawyers. Aside from Diokno, Tañada, and Hilbay, there were former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, former Integrated Bar of the Philippines national president Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo, current IBP president Domingo "Egon" Cayosa, veteran election lawyer Romulo Macalintal, FLAG lawyer Fhillip Sawali, who is De Lima's chief of staff, and IBP's legal aid head Minerva Ambrosio. 

FLAG is, in fact, throwing its full force behind its pañeros named respondents in the case: Diokno, Tañada, Te, and Sawali.

First salvo

Not only did Sanidad put the spotlight on the OSG, FLAG's first pleading was to question the legality of the DOJ panel itself. They questioned Secretary Menardo Guevarra's legal authority to form the panel, when, according to the group, the justice secretary's function over prosecutors is limited to the review process and cases involving acts of terrorism.

"The authority of the panel is likewise questioned by some of the respondents, so we will issue a written order with respect to all the issues raised in the respective motions, so if you want to go up, everything is in the record," said DOJ panel head Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Olivia Torrevillas.

On the first day of the hearing alone, the lawyers successfully deferred the submission of their clients' counter-affidavits. They argued: how can they answer a complaint that is not only vague, but is also not supported by any other evidence aside from Bikoy's testimony?

The complaint of the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) was 3 pages long and did not detail the specific participation of the respondents in the so-called Project Sodoma.

There was also confusion over things like the inclusion of running priest Father Robert Reyes in the complaint, when the affidavit actually referred to a Jesuit Father Ruben Reyes.

"If the complaint is vague, and did not mention your client, would that not favor the cause of your client?" Torrevillas asked, which elicited a few hearty laughs from the lawyers.

"But, anyway, the CIDG is represented by the OSG. They know what to do," Torrevillas added.

Indeed, the OSG knows what to do. It wouldn't enjoy an overwhelming winning streak in the Supreme Court if it didn’t.

The challenge has been laid out for the battle-tested lawyers representing the respondents. What would they do? 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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