How the legal system is used to attack political dissenters

Human rights groups and families of political prisoners march to Department of Justice to call for the release of political prisoners and resumption of peace talks. (File photo by Arneth Asiddao/Bulatlat)


MANILA – On October 9, 2017, the Duterte administration created an inter-agency task force called the Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action (IACLA), through a joint resolution signed by the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The IACLA’s aim is to “strengthen the intelligence gathering and cooperation, investigation, prosecution, and monitoring of cases against threat groups.”

Threat groups, for state security forces, apparently include ordinary activists and critics. Much like the Arroyo administration’s Oplan Bantay Laya, Duterte’s Oplan Kapanatagan does not also distinguish combatants from civilians.

Duterte’s IACLA is similar to Gloria Arroyo administrations Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), which was responsible for the filing of trumped-up charges against progressive lawmakers and leaders of people’s organizations.

A key difference between Arroyo’s IALAG and Duterte’s IACLA was the lack of case build-ups in the police-military operations, according to Rachel Pastores of the Public Interest Law Center in a paper presented during the Congress of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL).

Pastores, who handles several cases of political prisoners, said, “Once a person is considered a target for arrest, they will be subjected to intense surveillance. Once their whereabouts are confirmed, they are arrested through a joint police and military operation. The police and military have mastered the art of preparing false documents to justify the filing of fabricated charges.”

Pastores cited the cases of National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultants Raffy Baylosis, Vicente Ladlad and Rey Casambre to illustrate her observation.

In Baylosis’ case, an informant claimed that they spotted Baylosis ten meters away with a firearm tucked on his waist as he was boarding a jeepney. Baylosis was arrested upon reaching Quezon City and was slapped with illegal possession of firearms and explosives charges. The judge dismissed the case, citing a lack of validity in the truthfulness of the allegations.

In the case of Ladlad, an errand boy who claimed to have seen high-powered firearms and explosives in Ladlad’s kitchen reported it to the military. Ladlad was subsequently arrested in a raid. Pastores said that “a reasonable person would not believe the story” as a person possessing high-powered arms would not put them on display in a kitchen table for anybody to see.

In the case of Casambre, he was arrested with his wife while riding a car. Casambre was arrested on an arrest warrant from Davao, as well as charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. During the inquest, the arresting team’s story changed from finding the firearms inside the glove compartment, to finding the firearms on top of the dashboard, to noticing that the firearms were on top of Casambre’s laptop inside the glove compartment, which was open at the time.

Pastores also noted that the police and military resort to the planting of evidence to justify the filing of non-bailable offenses.

The simultaneous raids of police and military elements in Negros island on Oct. 31 led to the arrest of 57 activists. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. On the same day, the house of Gabriela local leader Cora Agovida and her husband Michael Tan Bartolome was also raided. The police allegedly recovered a .45 caliber pistol and two grenades inside the small house where two children, aged two and ten years old, also reside.

On Nov. 5, the office of Bayan-Metro Manila in Tondo was also raided. Three activists were arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

“It is easier to prove the case for illegal possession of firearms and explosives than the case of murder,” said Pastores, because the elements are simpler.

The NUPL and human rights alliance Karapatan noted that the search warrants used in the said raids were issued by Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89 Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert on October 30.

Karapatan noted that Villavert was also the judge who issued warrants for the arrest of National Democratic Front peace consultants Vicente Ladlad, Rey Casambre, Estrelita Suaybaguio, and, Alexander and Winona Birondo.

NUPL President Edre Olalia said, “Apparently, the police was able to shop for a sympathetic judge to achieve its sinister objective of securing shotgun warrants.”

Olalia said the Supreme Court circular issued in February 2004 defining the powers of executive judges, on its own, is logical. The problem, he said, is that the state forces “weaponized it to violate human rights.”

Under the Duterte administration, 225 political prisoners were arrested and detained, according to Karapatan. Majority of them were slapped with non-bailable common crimes in violation of the Hernandez political doctrine, which prohibits the criminalization of political offenses.

Another glaring example of political persecution is the filing of perjury charges against human rights defenders by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. The case, except against Catholic nun Elenita Belardo, has been dismissed.

Old remedies no longer accessible

Not only did human rights defenders have to face legal harassment, they were also denied protection previously available to them.

The separate petitions for writ of amparo and writ of habeas data filed by Karapatan, Gabriela and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines  and the NUPL were dismissed by the Court of Appeals this year.

Both the CA’s Former Special 15th Division (NUPL) and the 14th Division (Karapatan said “there is no substantial evidence” of the petitioners’ allegations of violations, or threats of violations of rights to life, liberty, and security.” Karapatan decried that the court did not hear their testimonies.

The groups were among those publicly red tagged and vilified as terrorists by government officials. Some of their members were killed, arrested and detained and subjected to surveillance and other forms of harassment.

After six months, Justice Mario Lopez, who penned the decision on Karapatan’s petition, was appointed by Duterte to the Supreme Court. “We doubt if the decision he penned has nothing to do with his appointment to the High Court,” Karapatan said in a statement following Lopez’s appointment.

Karapatan also criticized the appointment of Diosdado Peralta as the new Supreme Court Chief Justice on October 23. The group noted that Peralta favored martial law extensions in Mindanao and the burial of late dictator Marcos, upheld the legality of Senator Leila De Lima’s arrest, the closure of Boracay and the ouster of former Chief Justice Sereno.

The appointment of the two newest associate justices is a step towards an administration-packed SC, the group said. By the time the President ends his term in 2022, a total of 13 would be his appointees, leaving only two justices as non-Duterte appointees.

“We are wary that the succession of High Court justices appointed by Duterte will lead to an erosion of judicial independence. This will mean complicity on human rights violations and the utilization of the SC to justify violations and reaffirm the passage of repressive and controversial policies,” Karapatan said.

Counterinsurgency as framework

Olalia blamed Duterte’s counterinsurgency policy as stated in Executive Order No. 70 for the increasing cases of human rights violations against political dissenters.

The implementation of EO 70, he said, included illegal searches, red baiting and filing of trumped-up charges.

“Essentially, it’s the same [with the previous administrations] but it’s the gravity, degree, scope, rapacity, viciousness of orchestrated attacks that make it worse. The whole-of-nation approach is tantamount to wholesale attacks,” Olalia concluded. (

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