MANILA (UPDATE)— A Quezon City court has quashed search warrants issued by QC Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert against two peace talks staffers of the National Democratic Front due to inconsistent statements and questions surrounding the primary prosecution witness.
Judge Ferdinand Baylon of the QC Regional Trial Court Branch 77 declared invalid the search warrants issued by Villavert against Alexander Birondo and Winona Birondo.
The couple was among political prisoners ordered released by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 at the start of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the NDF. But they were rearrested soon after the negotiations collapsed.
The Birondos were arrested on July 23, 2019, first for alleged obstruction of justice because they supposedly intervened and prevented the arrest of a wanted person.
Police later served two search warrants in their apartment in Quezon City even though they were already detained in Camp Karingal, according to their counsel the Public Interest Law Center.
The Birondos challenged the validity of the search warrants, questioning the credibility of the primary witness, a certain Brian Reyes who claimed to be a janitor at the apartment, as well as the alleged failure of Villavert to ask searching and probing questions before issuing the search warrants.
Reyes had claimed in the early part of his affidavit that he saw what looked like a grenade and a gun inside the room of the Birondos when he peeked through the window. But he did not mention the grenade in the latter part of his affidavit.
His testimony before Villavert during the application for a search warrant did not clarify this as he only mentioned seeing a firearm.
“Essentially, what was relied upon was only the witness’ sworn statement, and no attempt to ask searching and probing questions was made insofar as the discovery of the grenade is concerned,” Judge Baylon said.
“This lack of sufficient questioning regarding the grenade, juxtaposed with the witness’ sworn statement and his testimony in court, leads this court to conclude that there is no basis for the issuance of SW No. 5898 (19),” he added, referring to the 1st search warrant.
LACK OF PARTICULAR DESCRIPTION IN SEARCH WARRANT
Baylon also found that the 2nd search warrant did not particularly describe the firearm to be seized.
It only mentioned “a firearm of unknown caliber,” violating the requirement that the items to be seized by virtue of a search warrant must be particularly described.
Baylon noted that Reyes never claimed he saw the Birondo couple holding the gun and ammunition. Instead, Reyes said he saw 4 persons inside the Birondos’ room and a person allegedly cleaning the gun with his back turned to him whom he thought to be a cop — raising the possibility that somebody else might have owned the gun and ammunition.
CREDIBILITY OF WITNESS QUESTIONED
It was, in fact, the identity of the witness that the court questioned — where he came from, why he started collecting garbage in the same month the search warrants were served, how he came to collect garbage in the Birondos' room, and how he was approached by police to testify.
Reyes just said he was approached by the police. But the court was not satisfied, wanting to find out how he could have been seen by the police during the couple’s arrest at the parking lot of the apartment complex if he claimed to be at the couple’s room 5 floors away.
“This was not explained, thus, leaving a semblance of incredulity to the happenstance that Mr. Reyes just happened to be seen by the police at an opportune moment when they needed someone to provide information regarding unit 515, not to mention the serendipitous fact that Mr. Reyes just happened to start his stint as a garbage collector of the apartment units in the same month the accused signed their lease contract,” the court said.
“The questions left unanswered and the inconsistencies not clarified belies the existence of probable cause which justifies the issuance of the search warrants. For this reason, the warrants should be quashed,” it added.
VILLAVERT’S SEARCH WARRANTS
Several search warrants issued by Villavert were earlier quashed by her fellow RTC judges.
She issued the search warrants against journalist Lady Ann Salem and six trade unionists who were arrested on December 10 last year during International Human Rights Day.
A Mandaluyong court in February this year voided the search warrants against Salem and companion Rodrigo Esparago for being vague.
A Bacolod court in March this year quashed search warrants Villavert issued against a member of Kilusang Mayo Uno due to failure to particularly describe the place to be searched.
Villavert is also the same judge who issued search warrants in 2019 that led to the arrest of 60 individuals in Negros and Manila, including detainee Reina Mae Nasino, who gave birth while in detention and later lost her baby River.
Rights groups and lawyers’ organizations have called on the Supreme Court to review the rules on issuance and service of search warrants to avoid abuses by so-called “warrant factories.”
The SC eventually issued guidelines prohibiting issuance of wholesale warrants and limiting the scope of the enforcement of search warrants to within a judicial region, as the high court also required the use of body-worn cameras in certain police operations.
In a statement, the Birondos’ lawyers from the PILC said they are “well acquainted with the use of false witnesses and contrived testimonies by the police in obtaining search warrants against targets of state persecution, particularly our clients who have been part of the peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.”
They vowed to move for the dismissal of charges against the Birondos.
Aside from illegal possession of firearms and explosives charges, the obstruction against justice charge remains pending at the QC Metropolitan Trial Court.
“The pernicious practice of securing warrants against activists and peace workers can be countered with keen vigilance and the observance of due process. But as the evils in the administration of justice are sought to be averted, we in PILC and those in other law groups will continue to engage and defend in the courts. The struggle is far from over,” they said.
'DUROG NA DUROG NA'
In a TeleRadyo interview Friday, lawyer Rachel Pastores, managing counsel of PILC, said her group was elated that there are lawyers who stand up against the questionable issuance of search warrants.
"Sa totoo lang, hindi madali para dun sa mga RTC judges na i-overrule ang isang executive judge kaya kami natutuwa kasi meron pang judges na tumitindig," she said.
(To be honest, it's not easy for RTC judges to overrule an executive judge that's why we're happy because there are still those who stand up.)
Baylon's decision to quash the search warrant only shows that Villavert failed to ask probing and exhaustive questions, Pastores said.
"Kasi kung probing and exhaustive 'yung questions niya, madi-discover niya 'yun. Questionable 'yung storyline," she said.
(If her questions were probing and exhaustive, she would discover that the storyline was questionable.)
Pastores bared they were mulling the possibility of requesting an audit on Villavert's performance as several search warrants issued by the executive judge had been quashed by her fellow RTC judges.
"Kung siya ay warak, 'yung clients namin ay durog na durog na. Mas masama 'yung kalagayan ng mga biktima," she said.
(If she's broken, our clients are crushed to pieces. The victims are in a worse spot.)