MANILA, Philippines — A group of lawmakers on Friday appealed to the Supreme Court to take a closer look at the way lower courts had been issuing search warrants, which they said were being “weaponized” by government security forces to silence activists and critics.
The Makabayan bloc at the House of Representatives particularly condemned the series of raids based on warrants issued by a Quezon City judge and conducted by the Philippine National Police on Thursday, as the country observed the International Day of Human Rights.
The predawn raids led to the arrest of six labor organizers and a journalist affiliated with a “Red-tagged” news site, the latest to be rounded up this month.
On Dec. 2, police arrested peasant organizer Amanda Socorro Echanis in Cagayan province, and two days later collared labor leader Jose Bernardino in Pampanga province.
According to the human rights advocacy group Karapatan, at least 3,614 activists have been arrested under the Duterte administration, with 426 still in jail because the “trumped-up” cases filed against them were for nonbailable offenses.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said his group would file a House resolution seeking an inquiry into the Dec. 10 raids, which led to the arrest of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and union organizers Dennise Velasco, Joel Demate, Rodrigo Esparago, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Raiselle Astudillo, and Jaymie Gregorio.
“As a concrete response, we will file a resolution for an investigation in the House. There is a need to review our existing laws because this is becoming a pattern,” Zarate said in an online press briefing.
He also cited last year’s predawn raids on the offices of progressive groups in Metro Manila and in Negros Occidental, where a total of 58 activists were arrested for alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives, which is nonbailable.
Those raids were carried out based on four search warrants (not 58, as earlier reported) issued by Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89.
It was also Villavert who issued the warrants obtained by the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) for Thursday’s raids.
“We are calling on the Supreme Court to take a closer look at this problem. The Supreme Court should take judicial notice that this is widely happening,” Zarate said, adding:
“Is it not curious that there seems to be a factory of warrants, and the targets seem to follow a pattern?”
Rep. Ferdinand Gaite, also of Bayan Muna, warned against the abuse of search warrants to stifle dissent.
“Like what lawyer VJ Topacio said, the Philippine National Police seems to stand for ‘Plantitos National Police’—the modus is to plant evidence against activists,” Gaite said, referring to the son of Agaton Topacio and Eugenia Magpantay, both peace consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines who were killed by the police last month at their Angono, Rizal, residence for allegedly resisting arrest.
Like in the recent raids, authorities conducted an operation in the wee hours to serve an arrest warrant on the couple, who were both in their 60s.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) president Edre Olalia said he couldn’t help but see a pattern in the arrests.
The police, Olalia said, could apparently secure warrants from the court with ease “by going through the motions and by mere presentation, even under oath, of supposed witnesses” claiming that the targeted activists were keeping firearms and explosives.
For a person charged with illegal possession of explosives to be granted bail, he said, the suspect would have to through a tedious legal process “to prove that the evidence of guilt is not strong.”
Such a charge, the lawyer said, “fits into the false political narrative of the state that legal activists have links with the armed underground movement” and are “terrorists.”
Security forces invoke “the routinary legal presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty” to counter accusations that the evidence was planted, Olalia said.
According to Olalia, whose group is helping Salem, the journalist remained in detention at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City as of Friday.
He said he still managed to talk to Salem on the phone but “her mobile phone might be taken away from her as police say it is ‘evidence.’’’
Also on Friday, Salem’s alma mater, the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, called for her release as it vouched “for her integrity as a journalist.”
“Icy cannot be guilty of documenting the plight of the marginalized in the articles that she has written and in the documentaries that she has produced,” the college said in a statement. “Her advocacy is her identity, even if it is now apparently the reason for her arrest and detention.”