MANILA (UPDATE) - An Olongapo City court has dismissed one of the first publicly-known terrorism cases in the country, involving two Aetas who were accused of engaging in a firefight with government troops in August last year.
In a 9-page decision dated July 15, the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 97 ordered the release of Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos after it found that the prosecution failed to prove their identities as perpetrators in an encounter in Zambales province. They were accused of being communist rebels.
“After a careful examination of the records, the Court holds that the prosecution failed to discharge the burden of providing the identities of the accused as the perpetrators of the crime of violation of Section 4 of RA No. 11479. Thus, the case for violation of this law against the accused must be dismissed,” read a portion of Judge Melani Fay Tadili's decision.
The court noted inconsistencies in statements of soldier-witnesses, who claimed they saw Gurung and Ramos during the gunfight and were shown pictures of them before the encounter, but never said so in their affidavits.
The court said that although affidavits are generally given weight if inconsistent with testimonies, this rule is not applicable in this case because two factors could cause misidentification: limited time for witness to see accused before the crime, and several persons committed the crime.
The court also ruled the Aetas were illegally arrested without a warrant since they were just running at the moment of their arrest and not proved to be the perpetrators of acts of terrorism. As a result, search was invalid and evidence seized were inadmissible.
"There is no lawful arrest of the accused. Thus, the warrantless search on the accused is invalid," the order read.
"Considering that there is no more evidence to support the conviction of the accused, the case for violation of RA No. 10951 or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act and PD No. 1866 as amended by RA No. 9156 against them must be dismissed," it added.
Tadili ordered the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Olongapo City to release Gurung and Ramos, "unless they are being lawfully held in custody for any reason."
The terrorism case against the 2 Aetas was touted as a test case for the Anti-Terrorism Act that President Rodrigo Duterte approved in July last year.
Police also filed terrorism charges against a female Indonesian alleged to be a suicide bomber and 3 others arrested in October last year in Jolo, Sulu, who are accused of plotting more suicide bombings following the twin blasts two months earlier that left 14 people dead.
Last February, Gurung and Ramos, through their lawyers from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, sought to intervene in the petitions against the Anti-Terrorism Act before the Supreme Court.
That petition for intervention led to a controversy with the Public Attorney’s Office and National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) replacing NUPL as the Aetas’ lawyers after they claimed they did not know about the petition at the high court. The NUPL withdrew from the case.
The petition was eventually dismissed by the high tribunal, announced during oral arguments in February when Solicitor General Jose Calida tried to postpone the proceedings citing the case of the Aetas.
The SC has yet to rule on the 37 petitions challenging the anti-terror law, some two months since oral arguments have concluded.
Atty. Edre Olalia of the NUPL said his group is "happy for our Aeta brothers who have been unjustly charged with frivolous and worse, trumped-up charges."
"That they have to undergo horrible and unimaginable torture, - which remains undisputed to this day - and made pawns by the very State that put them in jail in the first place and whose self-righteous agents even brazenly committed unethical conduct to snatch them away from their original counsel to defuse the focus on the patent injustice on them, is an indelible mark that is irreparable," said Olalia.
"Their rightful acquittal is well-deserved even as they had to go through the ordeal for some time."
The high court's decision on the case of the 2 Aetas has "clearly shown that our justice system works, hears and decides cases fairly, without fear or favor," said the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and the NCIP.
"Both NTF-ELCAC and NCIP ceaselessly worked together to remove our IP brothers from the exploitative clutches of the CPP-NPA-NDF including their front organizations, like Karapatan, so that their case will (be) justly heard under our system of laws," they said in a joint statement.
"These groups had been exploiting this case and has used it to move for the invalidation of the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020, which our ICCs/IPs (Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigenous Peoples) had sought and fully supported for their protection against the CPP/NPA presence within their lands."
The government's Anti-Terrorism Council has designated the CPP-NPA as terrorist organizations in December 2020, and the National Democratic Front last June.