MANILA (UPDATE) — A Mandaluyong court on Friday ordered the release of journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago a month after junking the illegal possession of firearms and explosives case against them.
Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio granted Salem’s and Esparago’s motion for release despite opposition from the prosecution, according to their lawyer Kristina Conti.
Just before 6 p.m., Salem and Esparago were released.
"Ni hindi namin in-expect today 'yung release pero nagpapasalamat po kami unang-una kay judge... mabilis niya nakita ang katotohanan sa gawa-gawang kaso na isinampa sa amin, napakabilis nito kumpara sa ibang political prisoners," Salem told reporters in brief remarks upon release.
(We did not expect that we will be released today but first of all we thank the judge... she immediately saw the truth that these charges were made up, this happened fast compared to other cases of political prisoners.)
Salem and Esparago were arrested during a dawn raid in their condominium in Mandaluyong on December 10, 2020, incidentally Human Rights Day. They were accused of “gun-running.”
But Quisumbing-Ignacio, on February 5, junked the illegal possession of firearms and explosives case against them declaring void the search warrant against them for being vague since it was used to justify police seizure of laptops and cellphones not listed in the warrant.
The court also took note of inconsistent statements given by the informant and police operatives to conclude that probable cause was not sufficiently established when the search warrants were issued by Quezon City Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.
The court also excluded the evidence recovered for being “fruits of the poisonous tree,” a doctrine which simply means that evidence obtained from illegal arrest, search or seizure cannot be used in court against the accused.
The prosecution had tried to oppose Salem and Esparago's release by saying the dismissal order has yet to become final since it could be “subject to reconsideration or appeal.”
But Salem and Esparago’s lawyers pressed for their release, saying that 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.
They argued, the dismissal of the charge amounted to an acquittal which cannot be appealed.
In her order Friday, Judge Quisumbing-Ignacio agreed with Salem that search warrants may be quashed and declared void for lack of probable cause due to “deliberate falsehoods” by applicant police officers and their alleged informant, calling them “perjured witnesses.”
The court noted not only inconsistencies of the statements of the informant but also his lack of personal knowledge on the alleged illegal activities.
It also pointed out that the informant's claim of meeting Salem and Esparago at their condominium in Mandaluyong in May 2020, which supposedly led to deliveries of firearms, ammunitions and hand grenades until October 2020, could not have happened since Salem moved in only in October 2020.
The judge debunked the prosecution's assertion that the court ruled that QC Judge Burgos-Villavert did not conduct probing personal examination.
Instead, she said Burgos-Villavert’s probing exam brought to light inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of police officers and their informant.
“It bears stressing that the cited inconsistencies and contradictions negate probable cause. They pertain to material details; i.e. the person who took a picture of the firearms and encoded in the laptop, the actual participation of accused Salem, the person to whom accused Esparago handed over the firearms, ammunitions and magazines for delivery, the kind and number of bags used to make the three separate deliveries, the actual month when Chris stopped making deliveries for the accused, what transpired on 27 November 2020, the persons seen inside the unit of Mark Ryan Cruz and the actual time when PCPT (Police Capt.) Visco and [informant] Geronimo met for the first time,” she said.
These inconsistencies, she stressed, were not trivial since they touched on the existence of the firearms, ammunition and explosives as well as possession -- the very elements of the crimes they were charged.
The court reiterated its earlier ruling that the policemen and informant involved were not credible.
But even disregarding conflicting statements and applying presumption of regularity, the court said it could not form a coherent statement of facts as basis for a finding of probable cause.
“Clearly, this court will have to rely on guesswork on many details just to make a finding of probable cause that can withstand scrutiny,” it said.
The court explained it earlier decided not to release Salem and Esparago yet in the belief that its order can be challenged on the ground of grave abuse of discretion through a certiorari proceeding, but after examining the arguments and the jurisprudence cited by the defense, it resolved to order their immediate release due to the prosecution’s failure to establish probable cause.
Salem's lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center welcomed the ruling, saying that the quashal of the search warrant (and the junking of the case) against Salem "exposes police lies and malice in search warrant application and implementation.”
“The Order is a breather in the midst of the continuing attacks against journalists and lawyers,” it said.
“We hope that the other victims of the trumped up charges resulting from the implementation of this void search warrant be released from detention also. We will work harder to break the cycle of police abuse in search warrant applications and implementation, and political persecution on the whole,” it added.
— with reports from Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News