Judges who gave hope in the fight against impunity | Inquirer News

Judges who gave hope in the fight against impunity

By their decisions on certain critical cases, Regional Trial Court Judges Rodolfo Azucena Jr., Arlene Lirag Palabrica, Andres Soriano and Alexander Tamayo have fired up the despondent imagination and provided leeway for the public to think that things can possibly get better, that there might be a way out of this slough.
07:30 AM January 06, 2019

Arlene Lirag Palabrica, Alexander Tamayo, Rodolfo Azucena Jr., Andres Soriano

In the vote for the Inquirer’s Filipino(s) of the Year 2018, one cited reason seemed to sum up the final results: “They give us hope amid the darkness descending upon the country.”

Indeed, “they” stand out in an era where the Supreme Court deems the remains of a dictator fit for burial in a cemetery for heroes, and where, on another plane, cops converge on a provincial jail in the dead of night, gun down a suspected drug lord right in his cell, and ultimately not only get their jobs back but are promoted as well.


“They” upend weary expectations in a society where might has come to mean right. “They” give breath to the faltering idea that even those with neither wealth nor power can receive fair treatment in a court of law.

“They” are Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judges Rodolfo Azucena Jr., Arlene Lirag Palabrica, Andres Soriano and Alexander Tamayo, who, by their decisions on certain critical cases, have fired up the despondent imagination and provided leeway for the public to think that things can possibly get better, that there might be a way out of this slough.


Three of the cases involve uniformed men, active or retired, representing the might of the state that, as in the bad old days of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law and continuing into the Duterte administration’s centerpiece war on drugs, appears to allow the military and police to get away with murder.

The fourth involves a senator of the realm, himself a former military man and longtime critic of the administration that by its behavior seems to view him as an enemy of the state.

The decisions of Judges Azucena, Soriano and Tamayo and the release and supplemental orders of Judge Palabrica chip away at the perception of an intimidated judiciary.

Collectively, they represent a bracing breeze emanating from musty courtrooms. They speak truth to power in an era that badly needs a principled stand.


Martial law being in force in Mindanao for the second straight year, it seemed like par for the course when a 75-member group bringing food and other supplies to a school for the “lumad” (indigenous Filipinos) in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, was stopped and held by the military late in November last year.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when 18 in the group, comprising ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro, Bayan Muna president Satur Ocampo, other activists and teachers, were subsequently arrested, although the charges — kidnapping, trafficking and abuse of children in a lumad school that had earlier lamented harassment by military men — bordered on the absurd.


(Foreign Secretary Teddyboy Locsin, showing flashes of his old reputation for calling things as they are, described the charges as “bullshit.”)

The school is one of two being run by Salugpongan Ta’tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center. In her narrative, its president, Lolita Muya, said soldiers and militiamen had ordered school officials and teachers to leave the premises in Sitio Nasilaban on Oct. 25.

A week later, the militia threatened murder if they did not comply.

They gathered their students and fled to the other Salugpongan school in Sitio Dulyan, but militiamen also shuttered it days later.

The school officials, teachers and students sent a distress call to the 75-member group that was then in Tagum City.

True to its mission, the group gathered resources and headed in a convoy to aid the beleaguered teachers and students.

This is the way things are in the lives of the lumad in Mindanao.

As early as July 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte had expressed more than displeasure toward lumad schools, saying these were “operating illegally” and “teaching children to rebel against the government.”

“Get out of there,” he had warned the lumad. “I’ll have those bombed, including your structures.”

On Dec. 1, 2018, Tagum RTC Executive Judge Arlene Palabrica ordered the release of Castro, Ocampo and the 16 others — nine and five of whom were being detained in the towns of Talaingod and Kapalong, respectively, and four in Tagum.

She pointed out that they had posted bail and that no information had been filed against them in court.

Police officer and lawyer Louie Padillo balked. He met with Palabrica in chambers and said the 18 accused would not be released because 1) they were still undergoing preliminary investigation and 2) the recommended bail of P80,000 each was for one charge only. In response, the judge told Padillo to file a pleading on the issue and for the matter of the bail to be clarified.

But when hours passed and there was no compliance on the government’s part, Palabrica was prompted to issue a supplemental order saying that while the performance of the police force, as well as Padillo’s arguments, was admirable, “we must rule in favor the respondents.”

The judge reiterated that the respondents, with no information filed against them in court, were “presumed innocent,” and that the posted bail applied to all charges.

“Their supreme right to liberty must be upheld,” she declared.


Then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, commander of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division, earned the tag “The Butcher” from human rights advocates for the number of activists killed in the areas where he had been assigned.

But despite the odium attached to his name, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo found his counterinsurgency tactics so impressive that she plied him with praise at her State of the Nation Address in 2006, where, having been named, he rose from among the audience and basked in the applause with an aw-shucks grin.

The attentive observer would recall that grin in the awful light of the “quite unnerving” testimony of the farmer Raymond Manalo, as recalled in the decision of Judge Alexander Tamayo of Bulacan RTC Branch 15, at the trial of Palparan and his coaccused for the kidnapping and serious illegal detention of University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan.

Karen and Sherlyn were 22 and 29, respectively, when taken by unidentified men from a house at Barangay San Miguel in Hagonoy, Bulacan, on June 26, 2006.

Before the trial of Palparan, Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado, Staff Sgt. Edgardo Osorio and (the still-at-large) Master Sgt. Rizal Hilario that took seven years to conclude, the mothers Concepcion Empeño and Erlinda Cadapan engaged in a search in a manner that any parent would dread but fully understand — with grim determination and mounting fear that they would never see their children again.

To their enduring sorrow, they have yet to find their missing children to this day.

At the promulgation of his decision on Sept. 17, 2018, Tamayo cited Manalo’s testimony that “included some horrifying bestial acts done on Karen and Sherlyn, replete with details that he could not have simply concocted.” Yet it was with “macabre silence” that Palparan acted in relation to the “most degrading and inhumane tortures repeatedly done to Karen and Sherlyn” at the 24th Infantry Battalion camp in Limay, Bataan, the judge noted.

It was with this silence that the commanding general “loudly expressed his assent to, approval of, and community of purpose in the crimes …”

Tamayo cited the “unassailable fact” that Palparan knew of the abduction of the two women activists by those under his command. Yet “he not only acquiesced to their unlawful captivity but also gave his imprimatur to their inhumane treatment at the hands of his men,” the judge wrote.

In finding Anotado, Osorio and Palparan guilty beyond reasonable doubt and sentencing them to life imprisonment, Tamayo wrote: “Viewed in its totality, the witnesses’ positive identification of the three accused and their respective participations and roles in the commission of the crimes charged against them, which, after close analysis, show their connections with each other and the common design aimed toward the attainment of the same unlawful purpose, more than satisfies the judicial mind and conscience.”

He continued: “It is immaterial whether any or all of the accused herein acted as a principal or as an accomplice because the conspiracy and the participation of each of them in the commission of and/or furtherance of the crimes for which they stand charged … have been established. In conspiracy, the act of one is the act of all and the conspirators shall be held equally liable for the crime.”


The terrible toll of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs appeared to have gradually lost its capacity to shock, but the killing of Kian delos Santos at Barangay 160, Libis Baesa, Caloocan City, on the night of Aug. 16, 2017, along with the killing of other youngsters at about the same time, provided a jolt that soon morphed into clangorous protest.

The usual “nanlaban” narrative of perp resistance — that the 17-year-old was a drug courier who had engaged police raiders in a shootout — did not gel; rather, the resulting public outcry over the manner of Kian’s death moved Malacañang to soften its hard-line approach and to (temporarily) take the Philippine National Police off its lead role in the antidrug campaign.

On Nov. 29, 2018, Caloocan RTC Branch 125 Presiding Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. sentenced PO3 Arnel Oares, PO1 Jerwin Cruz and PO1 Jeremias Pereda to up to 40 years behind bars, with no possibility of parole, for killing Delos Santos. The trial took six months — a rarity in a country where court cases drag on for years.

From eyewitness accounts and other evidence presented at the trial, Azucena pieced together the circumstances behind the murder of the young man who, it was reported, had poignantly begged the cops to release him because he had an exam the next day to study for:

With a police “asset,” Oares and Pereda accost Kian at a “sari-sari” store cum pharmacy. Cruz appears and asks where they are taking the teenager. Their answer is ominous, stating an intent to do him in: Ibaba na lang natin ito.

They drag Kian toward the basketball court. They stop at the dark end of the Tullahan River. After a short conversation, in which Kian begs his tormentors to stop — Sir, huwag po, sir — they drag him near the pigpen. Shots are fired by Oares and Pereda, with Cruz standing guard.

Kian had two gunshot wounds, “fracturing his skull and temporal bone and lacerating the cerebral hemispheres as well as the cerebellum.”

The trajectory of the bullets showed that the killers were standing over Kian, who was in a kneeling or sitting position. A paraffin examination administered on the teenager’s hands showed that he had not fired any gun.

Wrote the judge in his decision: “The court commiserates with our policemen who regularly thrust their lives in zones of danger in order to maintain peace and order, and acknowledges the apprehension faced by their families whenever they go on duty. But the use of unnecessary force or wanton violence is not justified when the fulfillment of their duty as law enforcers can [be] effected otherwise. A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society. Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement. The public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life.”

Azucena’s ruling is the first conviction in the war on drugs — proof positive, according to some quarters, that extrajudicial killings by agents of the state are marking the campaign.

It engenders hope among bereaved families and rights activists that other law enforcers and state agents involved in such murders will ultimately be held accountable despite the apparent mantle of immunity draped on them as primary fighters in the “war.”


After all was said and done in the case brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Makati RTC Branch 148, Presiding Judge Andres Soriano concluded simply on Oct. 22, 2018, that Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV had filed a proper application for amnesty and had admitted guilt for mutinous behavior in 2003, 2006 and 2007.

Having concluded thus, Soriano denied the DOJ’s “very urgent” motion for a hold-departure order on Trillanes and a warrant for his arrest for coup d’etat, effectively blocking what was then perceived as Malacañang’s unseemly efforts to decommission, as it were, another one of President Duterte’s ardent critics. And preferably, it was suspected, in time for the President’s arrival from an official visit overseas.

The DOJ had filed motions at Makati RTC Branches 148 and 150 (under Judge Elmo Alameda) seeking the reopening of the coup d’etat and rebellion cases against Trillanes, on the basis of the President’s Proclamation No. 572 declaring the senator’s amnesty void.

Soriano’s decision was in stark contrast to that of Alameda, who, ruling in favor of the DOJ in September, ordered the senator’s arrest for rebellion but allowed him to post bail. (Soriano, however, did not agree with Trillanes’ contention that Proclamation 572 was unconstitutional, stating that it was “purely an executive act and prerogative in the exercise of the President’s power of control and supervision” over the executive branch.)

In Proclamation 572 issued on Aug. 31, 2018—which Mr. Duterte candidly identified as Solicitor General Jose Calida’s idea — the government states that Trillanes failed not only to file an application for amnesty but also to admit participation in the Oakwood mutiny, etc.

The prosecution’s fundamental point was that there was no record of Trillanes’ application at the Department of National Defense (DND), and presented witnesses testifying to that effect.

But Soriano deemed the prosecution’s evidence “equivocal.” That no record of the application could be found in the DND files did not mean that no such document was ever submitted, he said. Indeed, he added, the prosecution witness who certified the unavailability of the application record “testified that she did not intend to state thereby that Trillanes did not file an amnesty application.”

On the other hand, Trillanes submitted in his defense eyewitness testimonies, authenticated photographs, and other evidence, which the prosecution failed to rebut, Soriano wrote. His ruling in the senator’s favor was based on this “unrebutted evidence, both preponderant and secondary.”

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