IN BRIEF: SC decision upholding Duterte's martial law in Mindanao

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 06 2017 04:18 PM | Updated as of Jul 06 2017 04:30 PM

"The overriding and paramount concern of martial law is the protection of the security of the nation and the good and safety of the public,” and martial rule is “crucial” to the safety and survival of our country, stressed the Supreme Court (SC) in its 82-page decision that upheld President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

Mr. Duterte issued Proclamation No. 216 on May 23, hours after local terror group Maute group and its armed allies waged attacks in the Philippines’ only Islamic City, Marawi. The declaration allowed the armed forces to launch air and ground offensives to regain control of the city, which has a land area of close to 88 kilometers. 

The battle for control of the city entered its 43rd day on Tuesday as the high court voted to back up the president, with over 460 people dead and close to 400,000 others displaced.

An overwhelming majority: eleven of the fifteen magistrates, were convinced Mr. Duterte was able to discharge his burden of proving there was sufficient factual basis to resort to his extraordinary commander-in-chief powers. 

Two, including Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, were of the view that the declaration should have only covered Marawi City and the rest of Lanao Del Sur, Maguindanao, and Sulu. 

Associate Justice Antonio Carpio voted for coverage to be limited only to Marawi. 

Only Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the habeas corpus writ were not warranted in Marawi and the rest of Mindanao. 

The decision struck down three separate petitions that challenged the executive issuance, filed by Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, et al., Eufemia Cullamat, et al., and Norkaya Mohamad, et al. 

"The President's conclusion, that there was an armed public uprising, the culpable purpose of which was the removal from the allegiance of the Philippine Government a portion of its territory and the deprivation of the President from performing his powers and prerogatives, was reached after a tactical consideration of the facts.

“[W]e hold that the parameters for the declaration of martial law and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus have been properly and fully complied with. Proclamation No. 216 has sufficient factual basis there being probable cause to believe that rebellion exists and that public safety requires the martial la declaration and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” the SC said, in the words of the ponente, Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo.

Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution provides the president may suspend the privilege of the habeas corpus writ or place the country or any part thereof under martial law, for a period not exceeding 60 days in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it. 

The high court said the president need only be convinced that there is “probable cause or evidence showing that more likely than not a rebellion was committed or is being committed,” and other standards of proof “would require much from the President and therefore unduly restrain his exercise of emergency powers.” 

After all, the SC explained, the commander-in-chief receives "vital, relevant, classified, and live information which equip and assist him in making decisions,”while the high court does not have the same resources as the president and can only investigate based on the pleadings.

"To be blunt about it, hours after the proclamation of martial law none of the members of this Court could have divined that more than ten thousand souls would be forced to evacuate to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro and that the military would have to secure those places also; none of us could have predicted that Cayamora Maute would be arrested in Davao City or that his wife Ominta Romato Maute would be apprehended in Masiu, Lanao del Sur; and, none of us had an inkling that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) would launch an attack in Cotabato City. 

"The Court has no military background and technical expertise to predict that. In the same manner, the Court lacks the technical capability to determine which part of Mindanao would best serve as forward operating base of the military in their present endeavor in Mindanao… It is on this score that the Court should give the President sufficient leeway to address the peace and order problem in Mindanao,” the SC said. 

WHOLE OF MINDANAO 

The 1987 Constitution has given the president the discretion to determine the territorial coverage of martial law or suspension of the privilege of the habeas corpus writ, even giving the commander-in-chief “wide leeway and flexibility in determining the territorial scope of martial law,” the high court said.

Stressing that it cannot infringe upon the president and executive department’s territory, and neither can it resort to judicial legislation, the SC explained, “[f]or the Court to overreach is to infringe upon another's territory… the power to determine the scope of territorial application belongs to the President.”

It was further explained that nowhere in the Constitution can it be found that martial law should be confined in a particular place where an armed public uprising or rebellion has transpired, and "limiting the proclamation and/or suspension to the place where there is actual rebellion would not only defeat the purpose of declaring martial law, it will make the exercise thereof ineffective and useless.”

“[T]he President’s duty to maintain peace and public safety is not limited only to the place where there is actual rebellionl; it extends to other areas where the present hostilities are in danger of spilling over. It is not intended merely to prevent the escape of lawless elements from Marawi City, but also to avoid enemy reinforcements and to cut their supply lines coming from different parts of Mindanao.” 

Bolstered by the fact that Marawi sits in the heart of Mindanao since it is where the southern Philippine region’s Kilometer Zero marker is found, making the city the point of all roads in Mindanao, the high court said "there is reasonable basis to believe that Marawi is only the staging point of the rebellion, both for symbolic and strategic reasons.”

'FEARS AND PREVIOUS ML EXPERIENCE MUST NOT PREVAIL'

And while the SC understands why some sectors are "apprehensive" of the resurgence of martial law given the country’s experience under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, it pointed out that fears and past experience must not trump the importance of the constitutionally protected measure since "martial law is critical and crucial to the promotion of public safety, the preservation of the nation's sovereignty and ultimately, the survival of our country.” 

The high court added “it is not fair to judge President Duterte based on the ills some of us may have experienced during the Marcos-martial law era."

"As such, martial law should not be cast aside, or its scope and potency limited and diluted, based on bias and unsubstantiated assumptions,” the SC said. 

The framers of the 1987 Constitution put in safeguards to ensure abuses are prevented, and have, in fact, “watered down” these immense executive powers, according to the high court. 

“Not only were the grounds limited to actual invasion or rebellion, but its duration was likewise fixed at 60 days, unless sooner revoked, nullified, or extended; at the same time, it is subject to the veto powers of the Court and Congress.” 

The SC, however, stressed the Constitution does not envision any further clipping of the president’s powers, and vested in him or her discretion in the exercise of his commander-in-chief powers. 

'WE HAVE TO ACT AS ONE UNDIVIDED NATION'

Even if not everyone can agree on various issues, with some of us standing up more ardently for our convictions than the rest, the SC said “we all need to summon the spirit of unity and act as one undivided nation, if we are to overcome and prevail in the struggle at hand."

"Let us face up to the fact that the siege in Marawi City has entered the second month and only God or Allah knows when it would end. Let us take notice of the fact that the casualties of the war are mounting… Can we not sheathe our swords and pause for a while to bury our dead, including our differences and prejudices?” read the SC's final point in its historic decision.