Home News Philippine courts caught in crossfire of political unrest

Philippine courts caught in crossfire of political unrest

A judge in the northern Philippines who acquitted an activist charged with murder was killed in an ambush on Nov. 5. Regional Trial Court Judge Mario Anacleto Bañez was shot dead on his way home in the province of La Union.

He was the sixth judge murdered under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The attack on Judge Bañez came a day after the government-run Philippine News Agency quoted a senior military official asking the Supreme Court to investigate judges who acquit suspected rebels.

Bañez’s murder capped days of crackdown on activists since Oct. 31 with multiple raids and the arrest of at least 60 people.

Among those arrested are leaders of opposition political party Bayan Muna and Gabriela Women’s Party that have seats in the Lower House of Congress, a community journalist, and several minors who are part of a theater group in the central Philippines.

Gunmen also shot dead Reynaldo Malaborbor, a coordinator of a progressive political alliance in the Southern Tagalog region and a former political prisoner acquitted of charges in the province of Laguna, south of the Philippine capital.

In Manila, joint police and military operations arrested three organizers of the political alliance Bayan and the urban poor group Kadamay in an early morning raid.

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In the southern region of Mindanao, a former officer of human rights group Karapatan was reported missing since Nov. 2.

Flood of warrants from one judge

Most of the arrests of activists were implemented after state agents served search warrants issued by one judge in Quezon City, a suburb of the capital Manila.

Activist groups pushed back on Nov. 6 with a protest action outside of the Hall of Justice to question the actions of Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.

At least ten search warrants might have been issued by Judge Burgos-Villavert on Oct. 30.

A paralegal volunteer of Karapatan noted the details justifying the issuance of the warrants were “very similar, almost copied.”

The government insisted those arrested are members of the communist New People’s Army, although several are public personalities. The arresting officers claimed to have found dozens of firearms in three well-known premises.

Krueger, who documented the search in the office of Gabriela, said they were first sent out of the office premises then called back in to be questioned about the guns and ammunition found.

Lawyers for the activists called for transparency and said they would move to compel the issuing judge to present the bases for the warrants.

The Supreme Court Chief Administrator said Judge Burgos-Villavert acted with powers assigned by law, but the new Chief Justice, Diosdado Peralta, cautioned judges to be more circumspect in granting warrants, especially when these cover distant areas in the provinces.

Most charges involve non-bailable crimes.

Soldiers and police have been reprimanded by judges in recent high-profile cases for sloppy casework or violation of human rights, leading to the dismissal of charges or the granting of bail.

Major General Antonio Parlade Jr, head of the military’s Civil-Military Operations and Communications Secretary Martin Andanar condemned what they described as the use of the law to shield communists — trying to take a page from critics’ accusation that the Duterte administration has weaponized the law.

Both men’s units have tried hard to convince European states, multilateral agencies, and big private groups to tar legal activist organizations as terrorists. Failure has rankled, with the interior secretary urging actions to “defeat communist propaganda.”

General Parlade claims the acquittals were the result of harassment by rebels of judges. Former legislator Neri Colmenares said the activists “are in no position to intimidate judges.”

“In fact, it is President Duterte who intimidates everybody, including the judiciary, when he threatened judges who would not support shortcuts in his drug campaign,” said Colmenares. He cited the ouster of former Chief Justice Ma Lourdes Sereno for defending the independence of the judiciary.

The new National Capital Region Police chief also came under fire for visiting the warrant issuing judge “for a dialogue” at the height of the attacks in the central Philippine province of Negros, which falls under the region he formerly led, to bloody results, including massacres.

The political opposition in the House of Representatives condemned the crackdown.

“We live in a democratic country and whatever ideology is espoused by individuals and organizations, as long as they act within the framework of the law, they should be respected and protected,” said House Minority leader Bienvenido Abante Jr.

He was referring to the repeal of the anti-subversion law in 1992.

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