SC decision offers 'new hope' for rights activists seeking protection against gov't forces

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 01 2020 03:38 PM | Updated as of Mar 01 2020 04:46 PM

MANILA - A recent Supreme Court decision granting a widow protection from police surveillance is offering new hope to rights activists seeking protection from the high court against alleged threats and intimidation from state forces.

Voting 8-5-1, SC magistrates granted the writ of amparo plea of Vivian Sanchez, whose estranged husband was killed by police in Antique in August 2018.

In its decision dated Oct. 15, 2019 but released only earlier this week, the court also issued a permanent protection order against members of the Philippine National Police after Sanchez complained that she and her 2 children were being monitored.

A writ of amparo is a remedy available to a person whose right to life, liberty and security is violated or threatened with violation by any unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity.

WHAT HAPPENED

Sanchez said her troubles started when she went to a funeral home to verify the death of her husband, Eldie Labinghisa, who was accused of being a member of the New People’s Army. 

She claimed the police took a photo of her which was circulated in the police station. When she returned to the funeral parlor the next day, police allegedly threatened to arrest and charge her if she refused to answer their questions.

Soon after she identified her husband through a photo of a cadaver that police showed her, Sanchez said she and her 2 children noticed frequent fly-bys of a police car in front her house, a vehicle tailing their ride, and someone shadowing her outside her house.

She tried to seek protection from the regional trial court but it dismissed her petition citing lack of tangible evidence to prove that police were behind the surveillance. It said that Sanchez’s and her daughter’s bare allegations were not supported by other evidence.

SC RULING

In reversing the trial court’s findings, the Supreme Court said the “totality of obtaining circumstances” showed Sanchez became a person of interest after her visit to the funeral home. 

SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, who penned the decision, cited Sanchez’s photo, the numerous times the police drove by her house and their being tailed every time they stepped out of their house, as proof she was “not merely imagining the threats against her and her family.”

“The totality of obtaining circumstances likewise shows that petition and her children were the subject of surveillance because of their relationship with a suspected member of the New People’s Army, creating a real threat to their life, liberty, or security,” Leonen said, despite the regional trial court’s findings that Sanchez was not able to specifically allege the police officers’ acts that threatened her security and liberty.

Leonen pointed out the factual background justifying Sanchez’s fears – “the current administration’s aggressive efforts to stamp out the communist struggle in the country, which is seen as the ‘scourge of society.’”

Seven other magistrates supported Leonen while Associate Justice Ramon Hernando and 4 other justices dissented due to lack of substantial evidence, the quantum of proof required in amparo cases.

“I find no established violation or threat to the life, liberty, or security of Sanchez or her children by any of the respondents. Neither did Sanchez show proof that the respondents committed any unlawful act or omission as to justify her plea for a writ of amparo,” Hernando said.

Leonen said there was no basis for the police to subject Sanchez and her children to any investigation because they are protected by “spousal and filial privileges” – evidentiary rules which prevents spouses from testifying against their spouses or speaking about matters learned in confidence because of their relationship. These privileges, he said, extend to family members.

He also invoked Sanchez’s right to privacy, calling the police’s act of taking her photo “disturbing,” even chiding the police for violating their own manual on ethics.

“The police officers’ brusque treatment of petitioner, threatening her with imprisonment and displaying her photo at the police station, does not reflect the professional and courteous image that the Philippine National Police wishes to convey as an institution. What they did was clearly not part of the usual investigation protocol,” he said.

NEW HOPE FOR PETITIONS SEEKING PROTECTION

The SC ruling came a few months after the Court of Appeals successively junked petitions for writ of amparo filed by rights groups against President Rodrigo Duterte, the military, the police and other government officials over alleged red-tagging, which they claimed, led to intimidation, threats and killings of some of their members.

In June last year, the CA Fourteenth Division denied the petition for writs of amparo and habeas data filed by Karapatan, women’s group Gabriela and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines against red-tagging and threats supposedly coming from the military, citing “no unlawful act or omission on the part of the respondents that violated or threatened the petitioners’ rights.”

A month later, the CA former 15th Division also denied the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers’ petitions for writs of amparo and habeas data which sought protection against alleged attacks against their member-lawyers supposedly perpetrated by state agents. 

In dismissing the petition, the CA said it was willing to consider circumstantial evidence, even “indicia and presumptions” but NUPL supposedly failed to discharge the burden of proof when it did not present evidence that would support their claim.

Both petitions cited Duterte’s statements, the counter-insurgency task force created under Executive Order 70, and the propaganda materials allegedly distributed by the military and the police against them.

The 2 petitions are on appeal with the Supreme Court.

For Edre Olalia, President of NUPL, the SC ruling in the Sanchez case offers a new ray hope for rights activists who have resorted to the judicial process to seek protection.

“We need more of these kinds of judicial protection and oversight vs excesses of the executive branch, especially at this time of vicious and reckless red-tagging and atrocious weaponization of the law criminalizing legitimate dissent and advocacy,” he said.

“We hope our courts would stand up and assert their independence and not be used as an instrument, wittingly or unwittingly, to further constrict democratic space and curtail basic liberties,” he added, clarifying that he remains “cautiously optimistic” about their chances. 

MESSAGE TO JUDGES

The Leonen ponencia is notable not just for its appreciation of evidence but also for the guidance it sent to judges handling similar cases.

He said the regional trial court should have considered the gender and power issues at play: between a law enforcer and a civilian and between male police officers and Sanchez and her daughter.
 
The court, Leonen said, must not be “gender-blind” so as not to see actual imminent threats against the widow and her children.

“They must look beyond their status as well-connected people who can assert themselves against men in uniform and who have no filial relation to one tagged as a communist,” he said.

“By advertently or inadvertently ignoring petitioner’s not so unique predicament as the spouse of a labeled communist, the Regional Trial Court created standards that would deny protection to those who need it most,” he explained.

He also faulted the trial court for not demanding a full report from the police, reminding public officials that they bear the burden of proof in a writ of amparo proceedings to show they exercised extraordinary diligence in performing their duties.

WRIT OF AMPARO

First announced in July 2007 by then-Chief Justice Reynato Puno and SC Associate Justice Adolfo Azcuna, the rule on the writ of amparo, Leonen said, “was crafted in an era when extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances were on the rise allegedly due to the government’s efforts to defeat an insurgency.”  

“The Rule was, in part, this Court’s statement that the insurgents’ narrative that fundamental rights were not durable and universal at all times was false,” he said.

He added: “It was an affirmation of the belief that, perhaps, unlike the rebels, our Constitution protected civility and human rights, and that this protection was what differentiated the government from the insurgents. It was, and still is, a rule that underscores our humanity and our civility.”

Leonen issued a reminder to authorities: “While pursuing rebels is a legitimate law enforcement objective, the zeal of our police must be bound by the fundamental rights of persons, especially the loved ones of persons of interest."

"After all, the values we have in our Constitution are what differentiates us from lawless elements,” he said.