activist groups in PH

Activists to SC: Probe judges for errors in ‘warrant factory’

Lian Buan

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Activists to SC: Probe judges for errors in ‘warrant factory’

FREE THEM. Relatives and supporters of seven trade unionists and journalists who were arrested on Human Rights Day, known as the Human Rights 7, call for the immediate release of the political prisoners.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

It's not enough that the powers of the executive judges of Manila and Quezon City are removed, say activists

After the Supreme Court removed the powers of executive judges of Manila and Quezon City courts to issue search warrants outside their judicial regions, activists called on the High Court to investigate judges for alleged misconduct.

“That the Supreme Court repealed the powers of the Manila and QC Regional Trial Court executive judges to issue warrants outside their judicial regions points to possible abuse of such powers,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of progressive group Bayan.

“It behooves the Supreme Court to review the actions of the executive judges, especially those that resulted in deaths,” said Reyes.

The Supreme Court said in a recent resolution that executive judges from now on can only issue search warrants within their judicial regions. This was a response to call for review of the rules, after Manila and QC judges’ search warrants resulted in crackdowns as far as Bacolod and Calabarzon.

The Calabarzon search warrants by the Manila judges resulted in three deaths out of the nine total killings of activists in what is now known as the Bloody Sunday of March 7, 2021.

A judge in Bacolod has also voided one of the warrants by QC executive judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, notorious to activists for always being the judge behind what they call “wholesale warrants.”

“Start off with Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert and down the line,” said Fides Lim, spokesperson of prisoners’ rights group Kapatid.

“[Those previous cases] shall be subjected to immediate and urgent review and to pave the way for the releases of those who were subjected to wrongful actions,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan.

Section 1, Rule 5 of the SC resolution said the rules will apply to “pending applications for search warrants or warrants of arrest and to those warrants issued that have not yet been implemented or executed.”

There is no mention of a retroactive application, although activists have raised the possibility of doing judicial audits.

The Supreme Court did this in 2016 when it suspended a Malabon judge after finding too many search warrants issued with too few returns or reports to the court.

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No to wholesale applications

In the Supreme Court’s resolution, cops are not only required to wear body cameras in the service of search warrants, they must also indicate in their application to the judge the availability of a body camera or an alternative recording device.

The resolution also provided a safeguard against wholesale warrants, which activists said policemen tended to do for massive crackdowns.

The Supreme Court said: “Multiple search warrant applications based on the same evidence filed in the same court shall be a ground for denial.”

In the Calabarzon raids, policemen applied for 63 search warrants in one go, 42 of which were granted by the Manila Regional Trial Court.

The Human Rights 7 cases in December 2020 is another example. It involved warrants from Villavert for activists based in different parts of Metro Manila, which is still within her judicial region.

The problem that arose was that subsequent court decisions clashed, with some voiding Villavert’s warrant, and others upholding it, even though they are based on the same facts involving the same witnesses.

“If already issued, this shall be a ground for the quashal of these warrants,” said the SC resolution.

Reyes said that gives the Supreme Court more reason to review those issuances.

“The mass applications and issuances of questionable search warrants by the QC and Manila RTC exec judges should be promptly reviewed. Two search warrants have already been quashed,” said Reyes.

“All those involved in the previous cases should be held accountable and to ensure that there would be no repetition of the said crimes,” said Palabay.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.