activist groups in PH

Activists oppose associate justice bid of ‘warrant factory’ judge

Jairo Bolledo

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Activists oppose associate justice bid of ‘warrant factory’ judge

PROTEST. Relatives and comrades of political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino wave to her as she is being escorted back to the Manila City Jail after a short visit to the wake of her 3-month-old daughter Baby River at a funeral home in Pandacan, Manila on October 14, 2020.

Photo by Inoue Jaena/Rappler

Karapatan says the warrants issued by Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert led to the arrest of at least 76 activists from 2018 to 2020

MANILA, Philippines – Activists are opposing the application for promotion of Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, whom they said issued numerous warrants which caused the arrest and detention of progressive individuals.

An announcement by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), showed Villavert’s name on the list of those seeking appointments to the Court of Appeals (CA), anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, and the Office of the Ombudsman’s Office of the Special Prosecutor.

The JBC post said open were four positions of Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals (CA), two positions of Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan, and the position of Ombudsman Special prosecutor, following the retirement of Special Prosecutor Edilberto Sandoval.

Villavert’s name was marked as among the applicants for an associate justice seat at the CA and Sandiganbayan. The JBC, which has the mandate to screen aspiring justices, scheduled Villavert’s interview on Wednesday, June 5.

Upon learning Villavert’s bid to become an associate justice, rights group Karapatan sent a letter dated May 22 to the JBC, urging the body to disqualify the judge from the positions she applied for. The group said Villavert was “accountable to the victims along with the abusive authorities who are responsible for having planted pieces of evidence that were made the bases for the continued unjust detention.”

“With her track record of abuse of power and authority, Judge Villavert is unfit to hold any position in the judiciary, let alone be promoted.  She is not a person of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence,” Karapatan said.

Activist Dennise Velasco, who was part of the group called “Human Rights 7” who were arrested through a warrant issued by Villavert in 2020, also wrote a letter to the JBC. Velasco said he was dismayed to see Villavert’s name as among the candidates, adding that he cannot stay silent as a former political prisoner who were wrongly arrested due to the judge’s warrant.

“Where is the justice in allowing Judge Villavert, who has a track record of human rights violations, to seek positions in the judiciary? We are still awaiting the Supreme Court’s promise to review complaints against judges involved in human rights violations, especially Judge Villavert,” Velasco said.

In 2022, another Quezon City judge voided the search warrant used in Velasco’s case, noting that the “the search and seizure warrant issued on the basis of evidence presented is void.” This paved the way for Velasco’s liberty. But four of Velasco’s colleagues remain detained until today: Vic Ladlad, Alberto and Virginia Villamor, and Renante Gamara.

“I am appealing for the immediate disqualification of Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert from being considered for a higher position in court. We fear she could cause further damage to the justice system and society as a whole,” Velasco said.

‘Warrant factory’

Villavert gained infamy among progressive groups as a “warrant factory” for issuing warrants against activists. The judge, in issuing warrants even for places beyond, stood on the Supreme Court Circular AM No. 03-8-02-SC, which empowers executive judges of the Manila and QC Regional Trial Courts to issue search warrants that can be served outside their jurisdictions, but following certain procedures.

Section 12, Chapter V of the circular says the Manila and QC executive judges have the authority to act on applications of the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation, but that the applications “shall be personally endorsed by the heads of such agencies.”

Villavert was the judge who issued the warrants that led to the arrest of activists Reina Mae Nasino, who was pregnant at the time, and Ram Carlo Bautista and Alma Moran, in 2019. The three were slapped with illegal possession of firearms and explosives charges, but the activists said the police planted the evidence. 

Nasino gave birth to her daughter, Baby River, while in jail and at the height of the pandemic. Her case put pressure on the courts to apply humanitarian considerations due to her condition. While Nasino was in jail, Baby River died shortly after her mother filed a motion for furlough. 

Nasino later walked free after they were granted bail and courts voided the warrants issued by Villavert. Even the SC upheld the voiding of Nasino’s warrant. In July 23, a Manila court acquitted the three of all their charges.

Aside from Nasino, journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparrago were also arrested through a Villavert-issued warrant. A Mandaluyong court later cleared the two of their charges, saying that the search warrant used to arrest them was void. The CA later affirmed the lower court’s decision.

According to Karapatan, the warrants issued by Villavert led to the arrest and filing of cases against 76 activists, from 2018 to 2020. Rappler monitoring showed that at least 17 activists, including Nasino and Salem, walked free from detention after other courts voided the warrants issued against them by Villavert.

The SC already scrapped the power of QC and Manila judges to issue warrants outside of their jurisdiction in 2021. This was not enough for activists, however, as they have been calling on the SC to probe judges, like Villavert, for errors in the warrants they have issued. Progressive groups renewed this call in 2023 following Nasino’s acquittal. –

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Jairo Bolledo

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