Flawed warrants laid bare as courts side with law in freeing activists
“I saw police forces committing a crime but I’m the one who was arrested.”
Still traumatized by what happened to her, this was how Lady Ann Salem described her ordeal in the hands of police who arrested her on Dec. 10, 2020, Human Rights Day.
“It took them three hours to fabricate the basis of my arrest,” Salem told INQUIRER.net.
“Those three hours forced me to go through the pain inside prison for a crime I never committed,” she said.
Salem, editor of the red-tagged publication Manila Today, said she was given a glimpse of the pattern that police, heeding orders from President Rodrigo Duterte, use in persecuting dissenters—use armed undercover agents during dawn raids in searches of activists’ homes that the operatives keep from view of their targets.
Salem was arrested with labor organizer Rodrigo Esparago inside her residence in Mandaluyong City. That day, five union organizers were likewise arrested in a string of police operations—Dennise Velasco, Mark Ryan Cruz, Romina Astudillo, Jaymie Gregorio and Joel Demate.
All seven were taken as operatives served the search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos–Villavert, whose court, activists said, had become a “warrant factory” for the Duterte administration’s crackdown on the Left.
But the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) said the operation against Salem and many others conducted by police against activists had been in compliance with a directive by the CIDG chief to escalate “operations against loose firearms and criminal gangs.”
Salem and her six co-detainees had been charged with possession of unlicensed firearms, an offense members of leftwing activist groups are all too familiar with. Their relatives described the charge as “fabricated.”
National Union of People’s Lawyers, which offers pro bono legal services to victims of government abuse who can’t afford lawyers, said in 2020 cases of illegal possession of firearms were commonly filed against activists because these were “easier to prove in court.”
According to Salem, when she saw police at her doorsteps, she already knew what would happen—she would be arrested and thrown in jail. She remained hopeful, however, that the court would see through the lies “invented by the government” and give her justice.
Hoping bore fruit for Salem when on Feb. 5, 2021, Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, of the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 209 dismissed the cases filed by police against her and Esparago, declaring the warrants issued against them “void.”
Quisumbing–Ignacio’s decision expunged from the record the explosives, pistols and bullets that police claimed had been found during their search of Salem’s house. Phones, laptops and other devices taken from the house were also declared inadmissible as evidence.
The decision, described as “brave”, not only led to Salem and Esparago’s freedom but also inspired other courts to “independently review” the search warrants coming from the sala of Burgos-Villavert and to “stand for what is right.”
In her ruling, Quisumbing-Ignacio said one of two search warrants from Burgos-Villavert did not “specify with sufficient particularity the laptop and cellphone to be seized,” declaring it “void for vagueness” and saying that the police cannot seize items that were not listed or described in the warrant.
“Not knowing which cellphone and laptop they were supposed to seize, they took all that they found,” said the ruling.
“This clearly shows that the search warrant suffered from vagueness. They undertook a ‘fishing expedition to seize and confiscate’ any and all cellphones and laptops they found in the premises,” it said.
Quisumbing-Ignacio, in her ruling, also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimonies of an informant and two police officers, saying they contradicted each other.
For instance, Patrolman Ernie Ambuyoc said in his sworn affidavit on Dec. 3, 2020 that he saw Salem taking photos of the firearms before these were encoded in her laptop. But during the court hearing, he said it was Esparago who took the pictures and Salem encoded these.
“All told, there being numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, the testimonies of the foregoing witnesses cannot be given full faith and credence,” wrote Quisumbing-Ignacio in her ruling.
“And since the sole basis of the issuance of the search warrants were their sworn statements and testimonies, the court finds that probable cause was not sufficiently established,” said the ruling.
“There were not enough facts and circumstances which would lead a reasonably discreet and prudent man to believe that an offense has been committed and that the objects sought in connection with the offense are in the place sought to be searched,’” it added.
Since Feb. 5, 2021, amid a growing clamor against the crackdown on legitimate dissent and the use of fabricated evidence against activists, search warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert had also been declared “invalid” by other courts, including those in Manila and Bacolod.
Burgos–Villavert’s warrants, which led to the arrests of activists, had been assailed as “based on lies.” Earlier this year, lawmakers asked the Supreme Court (SC) to take a look at how lower courts issue search warrants that are being “weaponized” by the government to escalate the crackdown on activists.
Last Aug. 13, Judge Ferdinand Baylon, of the Quezon City RTC Branch 77, granted the motion to quash filed by counsel from the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) for couple Alexander and Winona Birondo—both consultants in peace talks between the government and National Democratic Front of the Philippines which Duterte had already ended.
“The evidence recovered pursuant to these search warrants are deemed inadmissible as evidence,” said Baylon in his ruling.
This, rights group Karapatan said, showed that there were factual problems that put warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert in doubt.
“How come she issued these warrants given the inconsistent and unreliable —if not obviously fabricated—testimonies of the police’s so-called witnesses and informants?” the group said.
Lawyer Rachel Pastores said the Birondo spouses were taken on July 23, 2019 in Quezon City and were charged with obstruction of justice as they allegedly blocked the arrest of a certain Rolando Caballero.
The two were brought to Camp Karingal, the headquarters of the Northern Police District just hours before a search warrant was issued and served in the evening. Police announced the discovery of firearms and explosives in the couple’s residence.
It was said that police applied for a search warrant the same day through the sworn statement of a witness who happened to be the cleaner at the complex where the two were staying. However, Baylon said this was “incredulous.”
The witness said in his affidavit that he saw an explosive, but when he gave his testimony, he said he only saw firearms. He likewise said he wasn’t certain of the identity of the man cleaning the firearm when he saw it.
“The testimony that he saw a grenade appears to have been spoon-fed to him when he was reminded of what he stated in his sworn statement,” said Baylon in his ruling.
“The witness appears to have been led to state that he saw a grenade, together with the firearm. He was only made to affirm what he stated,” said the ruling.
“One could easily see the probability that the firearm and ammunition which he allegedly saw could have been owned by any of the unidentified persons he saw inside the unit on July 21 and 22 and were brought there by these persons,” he added.
The court also raised questions regarding the identity of the witness who started working only in the month when the Birondos were arrested.
“This was not explained, thus, leaving a semblance of incredulity to the happenstance that the witness just happened to be seen by the police at an opportune moment when they needed someone to provide information regarding that unit, not to mention the serendipitous fact that the witness just happened to start his stint as a garbage collector of the apartment units in the same month the accused signed their lease of contracts,” said Baylon’s ruling.
In granting the Birondos’ motion, he said the “questions left unanswered and the inconsistencies not clarified belies the existence of probable cause which justify the issuance of the search warrants.”
His decision also added to doubts that evidence obtained through the search warrant from Burgos–Villavert were admissible.
Last Feb. 18, Judge Ana Celeste Bernad, of the Bacolod RTC Branch 42, dismissed the case of illegal possession of firearms against John Lozande, Karina de la Cerna, Cherryl Catologo, Prosedo Qiatchon, Albert de la Cerna, and Noli Rosales—all activists in Negros Occidental.
The case was dismissed as Bernad “voided” the search warrant issued by Burgos–Villavert that led to the arrest of 57 individuals, including 13 minors, in Bacolod City and Escalante City on Oct. 31, 2019. At least 44 were charged but 31 were released a week after.
The court said in issuing search warrants, based on Section 2, Article 3 of the 1987 Constitution, the warrant should specifically describe the place to be searched.
“This constitutional right is the embodiment of a spiritual concept: the belief that to value the privacy of home and person and to afford its constitutional protection against the long reach of government is no less than to value human dignity, and that his privacy must not be disturbed except in case of overriding social need, and then only under stringent procedural safeguards,” said Bernad in the ruling.
The search warrant from Burgos–Villavert failed to describe “with particularity” the place to be searched as it simply authorized a search of No. 222, Ilang Ilang Street, Barangay Bata in Bacolod City—an address with three structures.
“The said address, however, upon entry is made up of three (3) structures that can be seen inside the compound containing a lot area of three hundred seventy five (375) square meters or more or less,” Bernad’s ruling said.
“It would seem that the warrant gives the raiding team unbridled and thus illegal authority to search all the structures found inside the above-stated address,” Bernad said.
“There was, therefore, in this case, an infringement of the constitutional requirement that a search warrant particularly describes the place to be searched; and that infringement necessarily brought into operation the concomitant provision that the Constitution guarantees the right of the people to secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” she said.
For Pastores, the quashing of the search warrants used against activists “vindicates” claims that these were illegal.
“There is a strong campaign and public opinion created by the unjust issuance of the search warrants. Because of these, I think the judges became strong in their decision to be independent and objective in reviewing,” she said.
The dismissal of the cases against Salem and Esparago, the Birondos, and the six Bacolod activists is part of a string of legal successes that were described by the NUPL as “legal pushback.”
“We are so glad and relieved that this legal pushback is on a roll and that our courts are stepping up to the plate to assert judicial independence against excesses, shortcuts, abuses and even incompetence of our law enforcement agencies in the dubious legal assault on activism,” the group said.
This year, “fabricated” cases filed against United Church of Christ in the Philippines Pastor Dan Balucio, couple Edgar and Regina Patulombon, youth activists in Metro Manila, Lamberto Asinas and the Capiz tribesmen were dismissed.
Last Aug. 13, Judge Maria Theresa San Juan, of Legazpi RTC Branch 10, cleared Balucio of the charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives as she voided the search warrant against Balucio because of the police’s “inconsistencies.”
The Patulombon spouses were likewise cleared of the same charge following the decision by Judge Dennis Velasco, of General Santos City RTC Branch 23, to grant the couple’s demurrer to evidence, saying that “infractions” were committed when they were arrested.
In Metro Manila, complaints of human trafficking, violating the rights of children in an armed conflict, and violating international humanitarian law against Anakbayan activists were dismissed by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“There is nary any evidence to prove that Anakbayan is an armed group or that it recruits minors or children in order to participate in hostilities or armed struggle or to exploit them in preparation of armed confrontation or violence,” the DOJ said.
Store owner Asinas, who had been red-tagged, was ordered released from jail as Judge Wilhelmina Go–Santiago, of the Batangas RTC Branch 14, cleared him of the charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Go-Santiago, in her ruling, said there were “inconsistencies” in the statement of police in applying for a search warrant, issued by Judge Cynthia Marino-Ricablanca of Laguna RTC Branch 27. The ruling said the informant, whose claim was used as basis for the warrant, did not have any record of living in the area where Asinas lived.
In Capiz, five search warrants used against the Tumandok tribesmen were “voided” by Judge Rommel Leonor of Mambusao, Capiz RTC Branch 21 for failing to satisfy the constitutional requirement of “definiteness or particularity.” Five of the search warrants were from Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa of Manila RTC Branch 4.
Likewise, former Communist Party of the Philippines chairman and New People’s Army commander Rolando Salas was cleared of a charge of illegal possession of firearms by Judge Ramon Corazon Blanco, of Angeles City RTC Branch 58, who said in her ruling that the warrantless search of Salas’ house was “illegal.”
Last July 9, the SC removed from executive judges of Manila and Quezon City the power to issue search warrants outside their “judicial regions.” It likewise promulgated rules on the use of body cameras in the implementation of search and arrest warrants.
Killings in search warrants
Salem said she hoped that other courts will also take a stand for what is right and release activists “illegally imprisoned.”
Karapatan said 76 activists had already been arrested through search warrants issued by Burgos–Villavert, increasing to 489 the total number of political prisoners since 2016.
In many cases, the serving of search warrants, however, end up in the killing of activists nationwide.
Last March 7, 2021, nine activists in Southern Tagalog were killed in simultaneous raids by the police and military who were implementing search warrants issued by the executive judges of Manila and Quezon City.
On Dec. 30, 2020, nine Tumandok tribesmen were also killed by the police and military in Capiz as they served search warrants for illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
“How long will the courts take to discover the government’s lies? We hope that the dismissal of cases against activists will spiral,” Salem said.
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