CA orders drug suspect freed after 5 years in jail

Calls govt inaction ‘shockingly unimaginable’

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The Court of Appeals building in Ermita, Manila. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/COURT OF APPEALS WEBSITE

MANILA, Philippines—The Court of Appeals ordered the release of a drug suspect, who has been in prison for over five years without a case being filed against her, as it called the government’s inaction “unreasonable,” “intolerable” and “shockingly unimaginable.”

In a 19-page decision promulgated June 11, the appeals court 7th Division through Associate Justice Noel Tijam ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) to release Joanne Urbina, whose right to due process and speedy trial have been violated.

“More than five years of detention, without valid information filed in court, is unreasonable; it is intolerable; it is shockingly unimaginable. It smacks of persecution rather than prosecution and pierces through the very essence of fairness and justice,” the appeals court said.

“It conjures up images of Guantanamo Bay detainees who have never been allowed a speedy and fair trial, a civil right granted to all by the Constitution,” the appeals court added.

Then 25-year-old Urbina, together with a certain Ben Ryan Chua,was arrested by the Philippine National Police Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force on Dec. 14, 2007.

On January 25, 2008, the case against Chua was dismissed while Urbina was left detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame since then.

Then, this year, Urbina filed a petition for habeas corpus with the Court of Appeals which prompted the Department of Justice (DoJ) to file the case in court against Urbina.

In her petition, Urbina, through her lawyer Siddharta Penaredondo III said the case against his client should also be nullified for violating Section 90 of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

Section 90 of RA 9165 provides that “when a preliminary investigation is conducted by a public prosecutor and a probable cause is established, the corresponding information shall be filed in court within 24 hours from the termination of the investigation…”

During a series of hearing at the appeals court, the Office of the Solicitor-General tried to justify the inaction by saying Urbina signed a waiver of detention when she asked for a preliminary investigation.

“We are of the considered view that this waiver did not give respondents (DoJ) the unbridled authority to withhold the filing of the Information against petitioner indefinitely. On this note, an inevitable question comes to mind: Had petitioner (Urbina) only known that her waiver would amount to five years of pre-trial incarceration, would she have executed a waiver in the first place? We believe that no person in his right mind would have done so,” the appeals court said.

Interestingly, the appeals court said that while the DoJ failed to justify the reason for the more than five years delay, it also failed to justify the sudden filing of a case in court against Urbina after she questioned her detention.

“In the absence of any clear and acceptable explanation, this Court is compelled to believe that the belated filing of the information is a product of mere after-thought designed to thwart a valid and legal recourse of the Petitioner (Urbina),” the appeals court said.

Associate Justices Romeo Barza and Ramon Cruz concurred with the decision.

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