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SC drafting writ of habeas data invoking right to truth

By Leila Salaverria
First Posted 03:25:00 08/31/2007

Filed Under: Missing Persons, Abduction, Justice & Rights, Human Rights, political killings, Judiciary (system of justice)

MANILA, Philippines -- The Supreme Court is drafting a new directive -- called writ of habeas data -- that will compel government and military officials to allow families of victims of enforced disappearances access to official documents by invoking ?the right to truth.?

Chief Justice Reynato Puno announced the new measure -- now effectively used against dictatorial regimes in Latin America -- in a speech on Aug. 25 before the College of Law alumni of Silliman University in Dumaguete City. A copy of his speech was given to reporters Thursday.

The writ of habeas data, Puno said, will not only require the military and other government agents to release information about the disappeared but also correct or destroy erroneous data gathered and stored against them.

The writ can be sought to gain access to military and police files, or can be resorted to by any citizen against any government agency to find out what information has been compiled against him or her, Puno added.

Puno noted that the 1987 Constitution, forged after the dark years of martial law, precisely gave the high court the power to stop human rights violations by handing down rules to protect constitutional rights.

He said its framers ?were gifted with a foresight that allowed them to see that the dark forces of human rights violators would revisit our country and wreak havoc on the rights of our people.?

Puno said the new writ was ?a remedy to protect the image, privacy, and honor of an individual and to enforce the freedom of information of a person.?

Activist role

The new writ further gives substance to the Puno court?s activist role amid stepped up charges the military has been engaging in extrajudicial executions and snatching suspected subversives.

The Supreme Court last month hosted a summit on extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in a bid to provide relief to families of victims in the face of rebuffs from the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

In the latest such incident, the AFP provost marshal snubbed a hearing on Aug. 13 of the Court of Appeals that had summoned him to bring documents on an investigation conducted in connection with the disappearance of leftist agriculturist Jonas Burgos.

Writ of amparo

Burgos? mother has failed to get the military?s investigation report on the loss of a plate number in its custody that was later seen in the vehicle her son?s abductors used. The AFP top brass has refused to divulge the report, claiming it was confidential.

Puno announced earlier that the Supreme Court was also working on what he called the writ of amparo -- the Spanish for protection. It will strip military officials of a pretext not to appear in judicial proceedings by simply issuing denials on cases of disappearances or extrajudicial executions.

Together with the writ of habeas corpus designed to force the government to produce persons in its custody before the tribunal, the writ of habeas data and the writ of amparo will further help those looking for missing loved ones.

?After the writ of amparo, we are also contemplating on promulgating rules to govern the issuance of the writ of habeas data, the remedy that will give reality to the right to truth of our people,? Puno said.

?The exercise of the right to truth will expose all the falsehoods, all the fabrications that public authorities and private persons usually put up to evade responsibility in cases of extralegal killings and involuntary disappearances,? he said.

Latin American experience

Puno said the relatively new writ of habeas data is available in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Argentina and Ecuador and has been important to families of the disappeared.

?It gives them the right to truth in their search for the fate and whereabouts of those who have disappeared as a result of the illegal acts and omissions of public authorities,? said Puno.

He noted that a landmark ruling of the Argentina Supreme Court stated that the writ could be used by families of the deceased to demand access to police and military files that would otherwise be kept from them.

In the Philippines, Puno said there was a need to resort to new remedies because of the failure of authorities to stop human rights violations, a matter that has drawn international concern.

?Bulging number of victims?

?Looking at our record with the most hospitable eye, the conclusion will not be kind to our authorities,? he said. ?This bulging number of victims of human rights violations and the failure to bring the perpetrators to swift justice have brought to use what observers call a culture of impunity.?

Fidelity to human rights

?We are hopeful that the three writs ... which solved the problem of extralegal killings and enforced disappearances in Latin American countries under military dictatorships will serve the same purpose in the Philippines,? he said.

The writs are the judiciary?s means of demonstrating its gratitude to the people for their trust and confidence, and Puno said that in protecting their life and liberty, ?there will be no dissonance between rhetoric and reality in our courts of justice.?

?We will demonstrate this fidelity to the human rights of the Filipino, not with a brittle wishbone, but with an unending backbone,? he added.

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