Lawyers press for 'acquitted' journalist’s release amid opposition from prosecutor

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 12 2021 03:32 PM

Lawyers press for 'acquitted' journalist’s release amid opposition from prosecutor 1
A seat is symbolically reserved for arrested journalist Lady Ann Salem during a press conference and launch of the Free Lady Ann Salem Network at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City on Dec. 18, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — Lawyers of journalist Lady Ann Salem, who was accused but later cleared of gun-running charges, on Thursday pressed for her release more than a week since a Mandaluyong court junked the case against her.

In a court filing, the Public Interest Law Center reiterated its plea for Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio to issue a release order for Salem and her companion Rodrigo Esparago despite objections from the prosecutor.

Salem and Esparago were arrested on Dec. 10, 2020, during International Human Rights Day, on the basis of a search warrant issued by Quezon City Regional Trial Court Presiding Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

But Judge Ignacio voided the search warrants for being “vague” as they did not specify which laptop and cellphone were to be seized, calling the police’s action of taking 4 laptops and 5 cellphones a “fishing expedition.”

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The court excluded the evidence recovered from the raid and also took note of inconsistencies in the police’s and informant’s statements in ruling that there was no probable cause to issue a search warrant.

Salem’s lawyers filed an urgent motion for her release on Monday citing the court’s ruling but Mandaluyong City senior assistant city prosecutor Querubin Garcia opposed this on Tuesday, saying the order of dismissal has yet to become final since it could be “subject to reconsideration or appeal.”

The 2-page opposition did not cite any legal basis. 

In their reply, Salem’s lawyers insisted the court's order quashing the search warrant and excluding the evidence is an "evidentiary ruling" and is based on the merits, making it final and immediately executory. 

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“With the inadmissibility of the evidence seized from [the accused's] condominium unit, there is no more evidence to support the charges. Indubitably, the decision of the judge is an evidentiary ruling and not just interlocutory,” they said.

They also argued the court's dismissal order amounted to an "acquittal" which precluded the prosecution from filing an appeal.

“A verdict of acquittal is immediately final and a reexamination of the merits of an acquittal, even in the appellate courts, will put the accused in jeopardy for the same offense,” they said, invoking the finality-of-acquittal doctrine.

They also cited the constitutional rule against double jeopardy — "No person shall be twice put in jeopardy of punishment for the same offense."

Under the rule, a previous conviction or acquittal without an accused’s consent before a competent court upon a valid complaint or information bars another prosecution for the same offense, provided that the defendant had also been arraigned. 

“Double jeopardy obtains in the instant case. Accused was formally charged under an Information that was valid on its face, before a competent court. She was arraigned on December 14, 2020. Upon motion, she was thereafter acquitted, by way of the dismissal of the cases against her,” they argued.

Salem’s lawyers, however, clarified that although it was Salem who moved for the dismissal of the case by seeking to quash the search warrants, there are also cases when an accused’s express consent to the dismissal of the case would not prevent the invocation of the rule. 

Salem and Esparago have questioned Burgos-Villavert’s issuance of search warrants, echoing criticisms of rights groups that the court had become a factory of search warrants.

Aside from issuing the search warrants for 5 other Human Rights Day 7 activists and unionists arrested on Dec. 10, 2020, Burgos-Villavert was the same judge who issued search warrants in 2019 leading to the arrest of 60 individuals in Bacolod and Manila, including Reina Mae Nasino who gave birth and lost her baby while under detention.

But Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta had earlier defended the judge’s issuance of search warrants, saying an SC circular allows executive judges of the Manila and Quezon City RTCs to issue search warrants which could be implemented anywhere in the country.