MANILA - These days, Supreme Court (SC) Justice Arturo Brion doesn’t leave home without bodyguards—a marked change in his life since he joined the Court a year ago.
Recently, he was tipped off on a contract on his life. “I was informed of a death threat. The Court found the information reliable and is looking into it,” Brion said in an interview. “This is part of the risk that I have to undergo.”
Brion declined to be specific about the information that he received. He said the threat has to do with a drug case, but he did not want to elaborate. The most he could say was this: “If anything happens to a justice of the Supreme Court, it will have a chilling effect on the judiciary.”
Sixteen judges have been killed since 1999. Last year, the Supreme Court announced a total of P1-million reward money for informants and witnesses whose information can lead to the arrest and conviction of the killers.
Brion has already reported the threat on his life to the police.
We pieced together the circumstances that led to the threat from Court insiders and sources with access to the SC justices.
In April this year, the Court, through its second division where Brion is a member, affirmed the conviction of a drug dealer, German Agojo, by the lower courts. Agojo is serving a life sentence in the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa.
Then Justice Dante Tinga wrote the decision and the rest of the division members—Justices Leonardo Quisumbing, Conchita Carpio-Morales, Presbitero Velasco Jr. and Brion—concurred.
Agojo was charged by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Tanauan, Batangas with selling shabu or methamphetamine hydrochloride in 1999 and was convicted. Years later, in 2007, the Court of Appeals affirmed the RTC’s decision, and this was recently upheld by the Supreme Court.
But the Court’s unanimous decision wasn’t reached smoothly. Tinga, in his draft decision, was for conviction and the other justices ultimately joined him. Our sources say that there was an argument since, initially, one of the justices was for the acquittal of Agojo. (This was one of the last cases Tinga handled; he retired in May.)
Apparently, the deliberations were leaked to the accused. The Court has learned from its own sources that the reason for the threat is that Brion blocked the acquittal of Agojo.
Our sources tell us that Brion wrote Chief Justice Reynato Puno a memo to report about the serious breach of confidentiality of Court deliberations.
Murder in Batangas
Brion has reason to fear for his life. The RTC judge in Batangas who convicted Agojo, Voltaire Rosales, was killed in 2004. He was gunned down near the hall of justice in Tanauan by two men aboard a motorcycle.
President Arroyo herself ordered a speedy investigation into the murder after she met with the widow of Rosales in Malacañang in June 2004.
The main suspect, Aldrin Galicia, is detained at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa; he was convicted in 2007, according to the Bureau of Corrections. The Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and the Tanauan police have said that Galicia is a member of a gun-for-hire group.
Sources in the judiciary say Rosales’s murder is linked to the Agojo case.
Tanauan used to be a drug dealer’s haven. In 2002, one of the biggest drug financiers in the city was murdered. And the biggest amount of shabu seized in Tanauan, as of 2003, was from Agojo in a drug buy-bust operation.
Today, the Philippines, according to the 2009 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, ranks fifth in the world in terms of shabu seizures from 1998 to 2007.
The same report shows that the Philippines has the highest annual prevalence of use of amphetamines in East and Southeast Asia.
As for the Supreme Court, this is not the first time that it has to deal with a leak. Recently, the Court penalized Justice Ruben Reyes immediately after his retirement for leaking an unpromulgated decision to one of the parties. He was ordered to pay a fine of P500,000, among others. An internal probe, conducted by three justices, made strong recommendations against Reyes.
The most the Supreme Court can do to discipline sitting justices is to admonish them, slap fines on them, and ostracize them. It is Congress which has the power to impeach justices.
But other leaks have gone unreported. Some litigants, our sources say, have gained copies of confidential documents from the Court. This anomalous practice has been going on for many years.
One of the reasons why the leaks have not been plugged can be attributed to the culture of secrecy in the Court.
“We were careful to protect the institution,” a lawyer who used to work with the Court said. “Public confidence in the Supreme Court is very important.” This lawyer said that if anomalies were disclosed, trust in the Court would erode.
We asked Brion his view. “The Court must sanction erring personnel. If we default, whatever protection (given to the Court) is self-defeating.”
A May 2009 Pulse Asia survey shows the Supreme Court’s performance rating at 37 percent. This has not changed at all compared to March 2008. The Court enjoys a slight lead over the Senate (35 percent) and the House of Representatives (32 percent). The Armed Forces, however, is ahead at 43 percent. But the Court is far behind agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development (68 percent) and the Department of Health (65 percent). –with research by Purple Romero, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak