MANILA - A court in Manila cleared on Wednesday two activists arrested in October 2019 following the service of search warrants issued by a court accused of being a warrants factory.
Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 19 Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar acquitted women’s rights activist Cora Agovida and urban poor organizer Michael Bartolome due to the prosecution’s failure to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they owned or possessed the firearms and explosives allegedly recovered from them.
The couple was arrested in their apartment in Paco Manila on October 31, 2019 based on search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, the same judge who issued warrants that led to more than 60 activist arrests in Manila and Negros around the same period.
Police allegedly recovered 2 pistols, ammunitions and 2 grenades during the raid but the judge found inconsistencies in the testimonies of the raiding team and the prosecution witnesses about how the search was conducted and where the weapons and explosives were found.
Members of the raiding team gave conflicting versions as to who knocked on the door and forced it open and if they were already inside the couple’s apartment before they informed them of the reason for the raid.
“Notably, PSSgt. Marcelo testified that they implemented the search warrants at 5:00 in the morning precisely because the subjects were usually asleep at that time. Moreover, they all testified that they were already inside the the place to be searched when the accused were informed of their authority, the purpose of the search and the object to be seized," the judge said in the ruling.
"These raised doubt on the reasonableness of the search that followed, for ‘a lawful entry is the indispensable predicate of a reasonable search,” the judge said.
A search is considered a violation of the constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure if it is a product of illegal entry, the court noted.
Police also had varying versions as to the location of the weapons and grenades — from the top of the dresser to inside the cabinet hidden beneath a pile of clothes.
The court said how the firearms and hand grenades were recovered constituted an “important aspect” of the case, given that the couple had consistently claimed the police and SWAT members barged into their apartment while they were sleeping, pointed their guns at them before they were made to lie face down and handcuffed.
Agovida and Bartolome said it took at least 15 minutes before they were informed about the search and claimed the evidence were planted.
The couple’s version of the events was corroborated by their then 10-year old child who testified in court along with his caretaker.
Their 2 children had to be separated from the couple and had been staying with a relative while they are detained.
The court noted none of the SWAT members were named nor made to testify to address the allegations of planting of evidence, especially since a policeman testified SWAT members first made sure the accused were unarmed before they were allowed to come in while a prosecution witness — the village chairman — said he was only allowed to come in when the items were already recovered.
The court also took issue with the chain of custody in handling the weapons and explosives when they were turned over for examination only on December 16, 2019 or more than a month since they were confiscated.
The prosecution also failed to prove that both Agovida and Bartolome did not have license to possess or own any firearm.
Judge Magdoza-Malagar took time to comment on how the search warrants were issued in the first place, taking “judicial notice that the application and implementation of search warrants are susceptible to abuse.”
“[T]he irregularities in the implementation of the search warrants, evident from the prosecution’s evidence itself, brings the Court back to Bartolome and Agovida’s protestation at the very onset of these cases — that the application and issuance of the search warrants were improper and had no bases. If the evidence against Bartolome and Agovida were planted, which possibility was not foreclosed, what was then the basis for the application of search warrants against them? Was there probable cause for their issuance as required by the Constitution?” he asked.
The judge pointed out the prosecution did not refer to the application for the warrants and the police officers who testified were not among those who conducted prior surveillance and were not even aware who applied for them.
Activists have accused Judge Burgos-Villavert of being a warrants factory, saying she has been issuing search warrants with questionable bases.
A Mandaluyong court early this year junked search warrants she issued against Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem for being vague and based on conflicting testimonies.
A Bacolod court in March this year voided another search warrant she issued in 2019 for failure to describe the place to be searched with particularity.
More search warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert were quashed in August this year, this time against two peace talks staffers of the National Democratic Front due to inconsistent statements and lack of particularity of the firearms to be seized.
The Supreme Court, in June this year, limited the scope of search warrants to only within their judicial regions and prohibited “wholesale” warrants amid accusations of courts acting as “warrant factories.”
The Supreme Court also mandated the use of body-worn cameras during service of search and arrest warrants.
In a statement, rights coalition KARAPATAN lauded Agovida’s and Bartolome’s acquittal.
“This Manila court’s acquittal of Agovida and Bartolome followed the QC court’s acquittal of Esterlita Suaybaguio of similar trumped up charges in September this year,” it said.
“These court decisions reaffirm the assertions of those unjustly arrested and detained that there were violations of their rights to due process, that evidence were planted against them and that the charges are all made up by a regime that desperately seeks to silence activists and defenders,” it added.
Activists, Cora Agovida, Michael Bartolome, urban poor organizer, activist arrest,