MANILA (UPDATE) — A Mandaluyong court has junked the illegal possession of firearms and explosives case against journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago, who were arrested in a dawn raid on December 10, 2020, incidentally Human Rights Day.
In an order released Friday, the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 dismissed the charges against Salem and Esparago, declaring the search warrants issued against them void, based on a copy of the order emailed to their lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center (PILC).
The same order excluded and expunged from the records the grenades, pistols and ammunitions supposedly recovered from the two, and declared inadmissible as evidence laptops, cellphones and other devices taken from their condominium unit during their arrest.
Police had accused Salem and Esparago of gun-running, supposedly based on surveillance by police operatives, but both denied the allegations, claiming the evidence against them were planted.
The two were arrested on the strength of search warrants issued by Quezon City Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, the same judge who previously issued search warrants in 2019 which led to the arrest of around 60 individuals in Manila and Bacolod.
On the basis of Burgos-Villavert’s search warrants, five other unionists were arrested on Human Rights Day last year — Dennise Velasco, Jaymie Gregorio, Jr., Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz and Joel Demate — all claiming that the search warrants were served at dawn, with authorities spending time inside their houses to allegedly plant evidence before declaring the start of the actual search.
Collectively, they were dubbed the “Human Rights Day 7.”
VOID SEARCH WARRANTS
Examining the warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert, Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio said one of the 2 search warrants used as basis for the raid was a general warrant which did not “specify with sufficient particularity the laptop and cellphone to be seized,” declaring it “void for vagueness.”
The search warrant only referred to 4 units of .45 caliber pistols, 2 units of .38 caliber pistols, magazine and ammunition, and 1 unit each of a laptop and cellphone.
But the police seized 4 laptops and 5 cellphones of different brands.
“Not knowing which cellphone and laptop they were supposed to seize, they took all that they found. This clearly shows that the Search Warrant suffered from vagueness. They undertook a ‘fishing expedition to seize and confiscate’ any and all cellphones and laptops they found in the premises,” the court said.
The court noted that law enforcers cannot seize items not described or listed in the search warrant.
The court also looked into inconsistencies in the statements of the informant Kharl Lou Geronimo, Patrolman Ernie Ambuyoc, and Police Capt. Michael Nathaniel Visco of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police-National Capital Region, based on court records.
These inconsistencies ranged from Salem’s actual participation in the supposed gun-running activities — from allegedly taking pictures, encoding in the laptop and wrapping firearms with bubble wrap — to details surrounding the alleged deliveries of firearms.
The court also noted that the testimony of team leader Visco deviated from that of the informant as to when they supposedly met.
The court went to the extent of noting a discrepancy in the testimony regarding another accused Mark Ryan Cruz, as to who were his companions when a delivery was supposedly made to him in another condo unit in Quezon City.
“All told, there being numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, the testimonies of the foregoing witnesses cannot be given full faith and credence. And since the sole basis of the issuance of the Search Warrants were their sworn statements and testimonies, the Court finds that probable cause was not sufficiently established,” it said.
“There were not enough facts and circumstances which would lead a reasonably discreet and prudent man to believe that an offense has been committed and that the objects sought in connection with the offense are in the place sought to be searched,’” it added.
And since the search warrants were issued in violation of the Constitution and procedural rules, the court considered the evidence inadmissible for being “fruits of the poisonous tree.”
The court issued a reminder to authorities: “there is a right way to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”
Salem is the editor of Manila Today, an independent media organization, and a founding member of Altermidya, an alliance of community journalists, independent media outfits, community radio broadcasters and grassroots film collectives.
Both organizations have been the subject of red-tagging, with the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) accusing Altermidya of being part of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) during a Senate hearing on December 1.
A few days later, on December 10, Salem was arrested with Esparago in a condominium unit in Mandaluyong.
Esparago is a trade union organizer and is a founding member of the Sandigang Manggagawa ng Quezon City.
In an audio recording provided to ABS-CBN News by their lawyer last December, Esparago and Salem detailed how they were arrested.
They said they were forced to stay in one corner of the condominium unit facing the wall while police officers moved freely inside their unit.
“Narinig ko talaga 'yung labas-pasok sa kwarto. Dinig mo naman 'pag may ginagalaw sa loob ng kwarto tapos may kaluskos. E nagkwestiyon na kami baka pwede na tumawag sa attorney, ano ba 'yung ginagawa niyo?,” Esparago said.
Salem said the police refused to identify which unit they came from and if they had warrants with them.
It was only after an hour later that police declared the start of the search.
All throughout, Esparago and Salem said their hands were cuffed behind their back with cable ties.
Both claimed they were held incommunicado for 35 hours after their arrest, without contact with the families or their lawyers.
Salem said they repeatedly asked to be able to talk to their families but were just told to wait.
COURT DECISION HAILED
In a statement, PILC, legal counsel of Salem and Espargo, hailed the ruling of Quisumbing-Ignacio, saying it was consistent with their position that there was no probable cause for Burgos-Villavert to issue the search warrants in the first place.
"The decision of Judge Quisumbing-Ignacio echoes issues raised by the defense with regard to material inconsistencies in the application for a search warrant, and protocol and rights violations during the implementation of the issued warrant. The warrant issued by Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert was quashed or nullified by Judge Ignacio, with a stern conclusion that there was no probable cause to issue it in the first place," the group said.
PILC said they expect Salem and Espargo to be released from detention "soon" following the Mandaluyong court's decision.
The lawyers of PILC added that the 5 other individuals from HR7 should benefit from Quisumbing-Ignacio's ruling since their warrants all came from Burgos-Villavert.
"Arrests made on the basis of warrants issued by the Judge Burgos-Villavert – of five others, on three other occasions – which are also based on the same surveillance records, are likewise put into question," PILC noted.
"The nail in the coffin is the dismissal of the cases, exposing not just faulty police work but vicious political persecution," they added.