‘Weaponized’ search warrants in ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings put pressure on Supreme Court to act to prevent bloodshed

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 09 2021 03:39 AM | Updated as of Mar 09 2021 09:12 AM

Human rights and advocacy groups hold a rally at the Commission on Human Rights office in Diliman, Quezon City to protest the killing of 9 activists in raids conducted by state security forces. Courtesy fisherfolk group PAMALAKAYA

MANILA — For a brief moment, lawyers of journalist Lady Ann Salem heaved a sigh of relief upon her release Friday, a month after a Mandaluyong court quashed the search warrants which had been the basis for her and her companion’s arrest.

But no sooner than 2 days later, the same method of serving search warrants at dawn raids was used on 2 dozen activists in the Calabarzon region leading to the so-called “Bloody Sunday” with 9 progressive leaders killed and several others arrested.

SEARCH WARRANTS AS TOOL 

The recent killings have put a spotlight on the issuance of search warrants by judges, which had become instrumental in the government’s efforts to go after left-leaning activists accused of being communist rebels.

Quezon City Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert issued the search warrants against Salem and 6 trade unionists who were arrested on December 10 last year during International Human Rights Day.

She was also the same judge who issued search warrants in 2019 which led to the arrest of 60 individuals in Negros and Manila, including detainee Reina Mae Nasino who gave birth and lost her baby while under detention.

The search warrants served on Sunday were issued by 2 Manila regional trial court judges — Manila RTC First Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo Dela Rosa of Manila RTC Branch 4 and Manila RTC Branch 174 Presiding Judge Jason Zapanta.

Dela Rosa had also issued search warrants that were served against members of the indigenous organization Tumandok nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kinabuhi (TUMANDUK) in Iloilo in December last year, where 9 people also died.

A Supreme Court circular allows executive judges, or, in their absence, vice-executive judges of the RTCs of Manila and Quezon City to issue search warrants which could be served in areas outside their territorial jurisdiction, in serious cases such as illegal possession of firearms, ammunitions and explosives.

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) Secretary-General Renato Reyes, Jr. called out what he sees is a pattern in all of these arrests.

“The search warrant would usually show that the targets had ‘1 hand grenade.’ A policeman makes a wild allegation that you are in possession of just one hand grenade and a judge will sign a search warrant that could lead to your arrest or death,” he said.

“The Bloody Sunday narratives are are all too familiar - planted evidence to justify arrests or the nanlaban excuse to justify EJKs (extrajudicial killings). That is how bad things have become. Search warrants have been weaponized to go after unarmed activists,” he claimed.

The issuance of either a search or arrest warrant requires a judge to personally determine probable cause “after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses…”

But unlike an application for an arrest warrant which requires that criminal charges should first be filed by prosecutors in court against the accused, law enforcers can directly apply for search warrants with courts without going through the prosecutors.

The Bill of Rights under the 1987 Constitution states that the place to be searched has to be particularly described, in the case of a search warrant, or the persons or things to be seized.

DEFECTIVE SEARCH WARRANTS

The lack of particularity in the search warrant issued against Salem led a Mandaluyong court to quash it for being vague, as it was used to seize cellphones and laptops not listed in the warrant.

The court also pointed out inconsistent statements given by the informant and the police officers to conclude that probable cause was not sufficiently established when the application for search warrant was made.

Trade unionist Joel Demate, part of the Human Rights Day 7, is banking on the same arguments in seeking the junking of the criminal charge against him in another Manila court. His motion has yet to be acted upon.

Demate and another trade union organizer Dennise Velasco have questioned the so-called “warrant factory” before the Supreme Court, which has yet to act on their petition.

Lawyers for Nasino from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers alleged the search warrants against her also had serious defects, including the wrong barangay and street addresses, as well as supposedly not credible claims that a hand grenade was hidden inside a paper bag near a single bed mattress on the floor.

IRREGULARITIES IN SUNDAY’S RAIDS

In Sunday’s raid, lawyers from NUPL and Public Interest Law Center pointed out defects in the service of the search warrant on Manny Asuncion, coordinator for Bayan-Cavite who was one of the fatalities.

The search warrant, they said, was intended for Rosario, Cavite but Asuncion was killed in the office of the Workers’ Assistance Center in Dasmariñas, Cavite, about a 30-minute ride away by car.

Rights group alliance KARAPATAN said police conducted simultaneous raids in both locations. Asuncion reportedly tried to negotiate with the police if they could show him a search warrant but none was shown.

“Asuncion was dragged away from his wife Lizel before gunshots were heard; six bullets, three in the front and three in the back, were recovered from his body,” the group said in a statement.

Explaining the irregularity of the situation, NUPL’s Josalee Deinla said at an online forum Monday that there was no reason to go after Asuncion in Dasmariñas, Cavite because “the reason for the issuance of the search warrant pertains to his keeping the firearms in that place [in Rosario, Cavite], not in his person.”

PILC’s Kristina Conti said that while Asuncion was not in “possession” of the caliber .45 pistol and ammunitions indicated in the search warrant, police could try to argue he was in “control” of the gun and ammunition.

“They have to show that this person was the only one who could possibly access the firearms. ‘Yun ‘yung gagawin ng pulis pero natatalo din sila sa ganung argumento,” she said.

DIFFICULTY IN SEEKING REDRESS

But while Salem had successfully challenged the validity of the issuance of the search warrants against her which led to the eventual junking of her case, Nasino did not have the benefit of immediately securing documents surrounding the police’s application for the issuance of a search warrant.

Nasino’s lawyer, Kathy Panguban, said Judge Burgos-Villavert who issued the search warrant and Judge Marivic Balisi-Umali who previously handled the illegal possession of firearms and explosives case against Nasino, both rejected her move to request copies of the records of the search warrant application, which would have been important in questioning its validity. 

Velasco, part of the HRD7, had also failed to secure records of the search warrant application against him, forcing him to file instead a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to question his arrest and detention but which a trial court denied.

WHEN WILL SUPREME COURT ACT?

As various groups call for an investigation and an end to the government’s “brutal crackdown” on activists, calls have intensified for the Supreme Court to act to prevent further bloodshed.

“The judges who issued the search warrants are just as culpable for these deaths as the police who carried out the operations,” Reyes said.

“When will the Supreme Court put an end to this abuse of the law? The pattern is already too glaring to ignore,” he added.

Deinla suggested an audience with the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and for the high court to revisit its circular allowing executive judges of Manila and Quezon City RTCs to issue search warrants enforceable anywhere in the Philippines.

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta had previously defended this practice, saying he, too, once issued similar search warrants when he was an RTC judge.

Deinla also urged judges to be “more circumspect” and thorough in vetting applications for search warrants.

“May anomaly di lang sa implementation, doon na rin mismo sa pag-aapply ng search warrant. Di lang sapat sa ilalim ng Constitution na makita ng issuing judge na may probable cause, dapat merong probing questions. So uungkatin lahat ng circumstances lalo pag di kapani-paniwala,” she said.

Other groups have called for disciplinary sanctions on judges found to have irregularly issued search warrants and a review of existing protective writs against threats from State forces.

NUPL and Karapatan previously failed to obtain protection from the Court of Appeals.

The calls for SC to act immediately comes days after NUPL lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen was stabbed with a screwdriver by unidentified men in Iloilo City last Wednesday, in what the Integrated Bar of the Philippines considers to be a “brazen and bloody assassination attempt.”

The Free Legal Assistance Group on Monday called on the high court to formally inquire with the DOJ and the Philippine National Police as to the status of killings of lawyers, prosecutors and judges in the country and to order the temporary halt on the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act in the country.

The Supreme Court has not responded to media’s requests for comments on both issues.

DOJ-LED PROBE

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday said that the AO 35 task force on extrajudicial killings will include the deaths on “Bloody Sunday” in its probe when it reconvenes in the 3rd or 4th week of March.

But for some groups, this is not enough.

International humanitarian law and human rights professor Romel Bagares said every single death during a police operation should trigger a probe.

“Pursuant to the PNP Manual of Operations, the deaths arising from the police operation should be subjected each to an inquest. Media should push the PNP on this -- and the DOJ too, given Sec. Guevarra's recent revelations that tokhang operations disregarded SOPs,” he said on Twitter.

“In fact I’d like to make the case that rampant disregard of this requirement makes the responsible PNP officers liable for administrative charges of grave misconduct, given that these precisely are rules set in place to avoid abuse of authority,” he added.

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