[ANALYSIS] Philippine courts dribble, stall on Trillanes amnesty issue

MANILA, Philippines – It started with a loud, clear message on September 4, when Malacañang published the presidential proclamation that ordered the revocation of the amnesty granted to President Rodrigo Duterte’s fierce enemy, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

Arrest Trillanes and send him back to jail, said the order.

That day, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who was also the country’s officer-in-charge at the time, confirmed the government’s order to apprehend Trillanes even without a warrant of arrest.

But the military and the police pushed back, with the Philippine courts dribbling and stalling.

So the month of September ends in a way that is displeasing to Duterte: Trillanes is going home a free man, at least for this weekend.

Dribble

Guevarra said on September 4 that the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) was “not the proper forum” for Trillanes to challenge Proclamation No. 572. That statement had the effect of pushing Trillanes to the Supreme Court, a route some lawyers warned to be the least ideal given perceptions of the High Court.

“[Which court to go is] for Trillanes’ counsel to find out, but not in the RTC,” the justice secretary said, adding that “the criminal court is not the proper forum to prove that the President’s proclamation was unfounded.”

But Trillanes ignored “friendly advice” and went to the Supreme Court just the same. 

Interviewed inside his courtroom on September 5 after the Department of Justice filed its motion for a warrant of arrest, Makati RTC Branch 148 Judge Andres Soriano deferred to the Supreme Court.

“With respect to the legal, naturally we would have to make a pronouncement, but most likely the one that will hold is whatever the Supreme Court will say,” Soriano said.

In the run-up to the weekly Tuesday en banc session of the Supreme Court, the entire executive branch changed its tune. They, including Duterte himself, ruled out a warrantless military arrest, saying the Supreme Court would be followed. (READ: INSIDE STORY: How Duterte handled Trillanes fiasco from Israel, Jordan)

On September 11, however, the Supreme Court referred the issue back to the lower courts.

"It is appropriate that the Makati Regional Trial Courts (RTCs) should be given leeway in exercising their concurrent jurisdiction to hear and resolve the pleadings/motions filed by the parties as regards the legality of Proclamation No. 572," the SC said.

Guevarra hailed the Supreme Court’s resolution as an acknowledgement of the “trial court’s continuing jurisdiction” over the coup d’etat and rebellion charges against Trillanes which were dismissed in 2011.

We reminded Guevarra that he had earlier said the RTC was not the proper forum.

“You're confused. I said Senator Trillanes' petition could be filed only in the Court of Appeals or in the Supreme Court, not in the RTC, because Trillanes is asking that RTC's actions be enjoined. An RTC cannot restrain or enjoin a fellow RTC,” said Guevarra.

Trillanes’ petition did not ask to enjoin the RTC proceedings, but the proclamation itself.

Stalling

With the ball passed back to the lower courts, Branch 150 Judge Elmo Alameda started tackling the factual issues, particularly the question of whether Trillanes filed an application or not.

Right away, Alameda asked Trillanes to submit the actual copy of his application form. When Trillanes couldn’t, Alameda proceeded to issue a warrant of arrest. There was a bail set at P200,000 because Trillanes had earlier won a petition for bail in the same court.

The crucial decision then shifted to Soriano, who will not be setting bail in the event of an arrest order because there was no similar bail grant to Trillanes in his court. Both rebellion and coup d'etat charges are generally non-bailable.

Soriano never tackled factual issues before. The main concern in his court was jurisdiction, whether or not he still had the right to reopen a case that was dismissed long ago.

But Soriano’s resolution on Friday, September 28, suddenly touched on the factual issue of whether or not Trillanes filed an application form. Soriano set it for hearing on October 5, effectively deferring a decision.

“Set this case for reception of evidence on October 5, 2018,” read Soriano’s order in an anticlimactic finish to persistent efforts to send Trillanes back to jail.

This, even though on September 24 Trillanes already submitted to him his evidence: sworn affidavits of military officials certifying he had filed an application form. These were the same evidence Trillanes submitted to Alameda, but which were disregarded for being substitute documents.

Test for judiciary

The Trillanes camp sees the Soriano deferment as cause for a “temporary sigh of relief.”

“I wouldn’t call it a victory. I would say this is in compliance with the rule of law. There was no rush to grant an order which would overturn decades of jurisprudence in the country,” said Trillanes' lawyer Rey Robles.

Earlier, Soriano said he was not “aware of any jurisprudence or law that is squarely in point” with the government’s request to reopen a case long dismissed. (READ: LIST: False claims of Duterte, Panelo about legal issues on Trillanes amnesty)

If Soriano ends up deciding the way Alameda did, there will be a new appreciation of the right against double jeopardy. If Soriano decides differently, it will create a glaring clash.

Meanwhile, observers said it’s possible for the Supreme Court to hold oral arguments on the proclamation.

Evidently, Duterte’s proclamation has put the Philippine judiciary to a test. (READ: TIMELINE: Gov't gaps, retractions in voiding Trillanes amnesty)

The National Union of Peoples’ Laywers (NUPL) has slammed Duterte’s proclamation as a blatant manipulation of the law to silence a critic. 

“It proves one thing: the whole kitchen sink of the State apparatus will be thrown at those who dare to differ and dissent. All those who visibly and volubly criticize and doggedly exercise their legitimate rights are in the crosshairs of an intolerant government,” said NUPL president Edre Olalia. – 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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