Court orders woman freed after 5 years without charges

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The Court of Appeals has directed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to investigate the incarceration of a woman for five years without charges, a situation that it says is similar to that of detainees in the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

In a decision handed down on June 11, the Court of Appeals’ Seventh Division dismissed the drug charges government prosecutors brought against Joanne Urbina only last month and ordered her released.

Urbina was arrested on drug charges in December 2007, but, for reasons not clear to the court, state prosecutors failed to bring charges against her until May 9, way beyond the 24-hour period prescribed by law and the 30-day period prescribed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) within which an automatic review of cases should be resolved, the court said.

“More than five years of detention, without a valid information filed in court, is unreasonable; it is intolerable; it is shockingly unimaginable,” the court said in the decision written by Associate Justice Noel Tijam, chairman of the Seventh Division.

The court said what Urbina had gone through “smacks of persecution rather than prosecution and pierces through the very essence of fairness and justice.”

“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 court said.

Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a United States military holding and interrogation center within Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

For terrorists

Also known as Camp Wire and Gitmo, after GTMO, the military abbreviation for Guantanamo Naval Base, the detention camp was established in 2002 by the administration of US President George W. Bush to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without charges.

But Urbina’s case involves illegal drugs and detaining her without charges for five years is an incredible violation of the law.

“We find it necessary to direct [Justice Secretary De Lima] to conduct an investigation on the underlying circumstances [that] caused the five-year delay in the filing of the questioned information and to furnish this court with the result of the investigation immediately upon its completion,” the court said.

The court granted Urbina’s petition for certiorari and habeas corpus, which stemmed from her alleged arbitrary detention at the Philippine National Police custodial center in Camp Crame, Quezon City.

It also voided the drug information brought against Urbina only on May 9 “for having been filed way beyond the period prescribed under the pertinent rules of the Department of Justice and for being violative of petitioner’s constitutional right to a speedy disposition of her case and due process of law.”

And the court ordered Urbina released, unless she was detained for other lawful causes.

Drug case

Urbina and one Ben Chua were arrested during a police raid on their home in Quezon City on Dec. 14, 2007. Police found in the house what they said tested later as methamphetamines and marijuana.

The two were taken to the PNP custodial center in Camp Crame and subjected to an inquest the next day, after which they asked for a preliminary investigation.

On Jan. 25, 2008, the DOJ dropped the case against Chua for insufficiency of evidence but upheld Urbina’s indictment for violation of the illegal drugs law.

She remained detained, as the law does not allow bail in drug cases.

In September 2011, Urbina filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, questioning the legality of her prolonged incarceration without any information filed against her.

But the trial court denied her petition, saying that she had executed a waiver of her detention when she agreed to a preliminary investigation.

The trial court denied her subsequent motion for reconsideration.

On April 2, Urbina sought relief from the Court of Appeals, this time questioning whether the government had violated her constitutional right to a speedy trial, among other rights.

In her petition, she said she had been languishing in jail for five years and two months without the benefit of a trial.

She filed the petition against De Lima, Prosecutor General Claro Arellano and Assistant City Prosecutors Alfredo Agcaoili and Wilfredo Andres of Quezon City.

Right violated

The appellate court took her side, saying a “careful scrutiny of the evidence on record” showed that Urbina’s constitutional right to a speedy disposition of her case was “indeed violated.”

The court said that after it held hearings on May 9 and 10 in response to Urbina’s petition, the respondents filed an information against her on May 9 in the Quezon City court, based on the May 8 resolution of the DOJ affirming the Jan. 25, 2008, resolution of the assistant city prosecutor of Quezon City.

Urbina then sought to restrain the filing of an information against her and the appellate court granted her petition on May 17.

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