MANILA – A technicality has imperiled rights group Karapatan and fellow-petitioners’ plea for protection against alleged threats to the lives, liberty and security of their members from supposed state security forces.
The Court of Appeals 14th Division ruled on Tuesday it will no longer allow Karapatan, Gabriela, and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) to present their witnesses after they failed to attach their judicial affidavits to the petition.
Instead, the court heard petitioners’ and respondents’ arguments and declared the petition for writ of amparo and habeas data submitted for decision.
Karapatan, Gabriela, and RMP sought the Supreme Court’s protection, claiming they were “constantly threatened and harassed, red-tagged and maliciously terrorist-labeled only because of their advocacies in various fields of human rights work.”
The high court issued a writ of amparo last month, requiring respondents to comment to the petition and setting the hearing before the appellate court on June 18.
Named as respondents in the petition are President Rodrigo Duterte, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, AFP chief Benjamin Madrigal, Jr., the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), the PNP investigation unit and several officials from Malacañang.
During Tuesday’s hearing, CA Associate Justice Mario Lopez warned petitioners that they will not be allowed to present evidence if they cannot submit judicial affidavits of their witnesses and that he will not grant any extensions.
Karapatan’s lead counsel, Ephraim Cortez, explained they had no judicial affidavits available yet because they expected a preliminary conference will be held first where parties will identify the issues, name the witnesses, and list their evidence.
He invoked the procedure in a similar petition for amparo filed by the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and other cases where a CA division held a preliminary conference first and allowed submission of judicial affidavits of witnesses 5 days before their scheduled testimony.
“Basic naman ‘yung uniformity ng procedures na fino-follow ng court. So why allow some procedures in some cases involving one petitioner and disallow following these procedures in this particular case. We argued nga na dapat finollow, otherwise merong violation ng due process ng aming clients,” he told the media shortly after the hearing.
But Lopez pointed out, the writ of amparo is a summary proceeding and the holding of a preliminary conference is only optional.
After a brief recess, fellow-CA Associate Justices Zenaida Galapate-Lagilles and Tita Marilyn Payoyo-Villordon joined Lopez in ruling against Karapatan.
NUPL’s Josalee Deinla, co-counsel for petitioners, admitted they were surprised at the ruling but denied they were unprepared.
“Honestly yes, we were actually surprised. We have been preparing. For the preliminary conference, we actually prepared our own pre-trial brief,” she said.
“And we also take exception to the suggestion earlier by one of the justices that we were not vigilant in preparing for this case because we have feverishly been preparing for this case and for the past 5 days, awaiting the receipt of the verified return, which we never received,” she added.
Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay told reporters they were “deeply disappointed” at the outcome of the hearing.
“Ginagawa po ba kaming double-dead ng korte? Kami po ay pumunta sa korte para humingi ng legal protection dahil ang mga threats, ang direct statements po ng Pangulo laban sa Karapatan, ng mga military officials, ay tingin namin, hindi simpleng salita. Ito po ay nagkakatotoo. Kami na nga po ang pinapatay,” she said.
Joms Salvador, secretary-general of Gabriela, warned the ruling could further encourage threats against rights activists.
“We are deeply concerned na dito sa nangyari sa hearing ngayong umaga ay mas lalo pang lalala yung sitwasyon, mas lalong ma-eembolden yung mga state security forces, mga pulis, mga militar na pumapatay, nananakot, nanghaharass. Lalo pang na-eembolden yung opisyal ng gobyerno, lalong lalo na si Pangulong Duterte na without regard sa security, sa liberty, sa buhay ng mga sinasabihang pinaparatangan ng anu-ano ay gagawin na lamang sa kanila ang ganung mga kaso,” she said.
Karapatan and the other petitioners vowed to explore all legal remedies to appeal CA’s ruling.
Despite the ruling, petitioners said they are confident their petition has strong basis.
They claimed the threats continue and cited the killing of activist Ryan Hubilla in Sorsogon Saturday. They said Hubilla was supposed to testify for Karapatan.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who is one of the respondents named in the petition, lauded the CA 14th Division’s ruling.
“It seems like a solid win for the government. I think the judges saw what is obvious, that there’s no substance to their complaints,” she told reporters after the hearing.
“It did seem really sloppy that they didn’t come prepared. So I was really curious what are they really here for? Are they here for legitimate grievances or are they here for media mileage?” she added.
Badoy rejected petitioners’ allegations that the statements of President Duterte and other high-ranking officials linking them to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) constitute threats and eventually led to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
She insisted red-tagging in itself is not a crime and suggested that the killings of activists could, in fact, be attributed to the CPP-NPA itself, echoing one of the arguments the Office of the Solicitor General raised during the hearing. The OSG is representing the respondents.
“We also know for a fact that the CPP-NPA, they’ve had their purgings. And it’s really the way they do things. They’ve been doing things na they kill people, they kill members of their own party and then they blame it on the government. That’s the CPP-NPA formula for you all these years,” she said.
“It would be a real possibility to me,” she explained.
Karapatan’s Palabay earlier rejected this claim.
“The line of our colleagues being killed because of purging by the CPP-NPA and NDF is a long rehashed line – a line that has been disproven by UN special rapporteur Philip Alston, a line that has been disproven by several independent experts not only of the United Nations but also by the Commission on Human Rights,” she said.
In a 2007 report, Alston called the military’s claim of a CPP-NPA purge “strikingly unconvincing” and a “cynical attempt to displace responsibility.”
The CA 14th Division has 10 days to issue a decision on Karapatan’s petition.