by DANILO REYES
HONG KONG, China, November 11, 2008 Four activists, including a labor lawyer, were arrested and detained in the Philippines on separate occasions in October and November. Irregularities in filing charges against them, and the manner in which their cases are being handled, raise questions as to whether public prosecutors are adhering to procedures or just acting as political tools. (Photo: Noel Neri (far left) and Jobert Pahilga (far right) with Remigio Saladero, Jr. and Rachel Pastores in an Oct. 16, 2006 press conference on attacks against lawyers. PHOTO by dabet castañeda)
Prosecutors have a huge responsibility not only to prosecute suspects in criminal offenses, but also to protect those accused of illegal acts. Stringent rules on this are stipulated in the Philippines Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, particularly in Rule 110, which include the rights and legal protections available to the accused.
The point of these rules is to ensure that criminal allegations are based on factual evidence. It is the duty of prosecutors to ensure probable cause before making decisions on the security and liberty of accused persons. Their role is to balance supremacy of the law with protection of the rights of the accused. They are not adversaries of the accused.
A person charged of a crime should be properly informed of the nature of the offense, his alleged participation in committing the crime "be it direct or indirect" and the facts of the case should provide "sufficient ground to hold him for trial.
When police forcibly took labor lawyer Remigio Saladero Jr., a member of the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center, from his house in Antipolo City on Oct. 23, into custody, he had no idea of the charges against him. He briefly disappeared after the police refused him permission to contact his family. His arrest also illustrates the arbitrary and irregular manner in which police take suspects into custody.
Saladero was shown an arrest warrant in connection with a murder case that took place in March 2006 in Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental. The warrant bore a different name and address than his. Even if he were the person named in the warrant, issued to the wrong address, he would still have had no way to defend himself or respond to the allegations. In fact, he never received a subpoena.
Apart from the murder charge, Saladero was accused of arson and conspiracy to commit rebellion in connection with an incident in Lemery, Batangas, on Aug. 2 this year. This involved the burning of a site owned by Globe Telecom, a telecommunications company. In this case, Saladero was charged along with a number of other known activists.
Two of Saladero's co-accused, namely Romeo Aguilar, the coordinator of Katipunang Damayan ng Mahihirap and Rogelio Galit, the spokesperson of Katipunan ng mga Magbubukid sa Kabite, are unwell and suffer from diabetes. Aguilar and Galit were charged with arson and murder respectively. How prosecutors were able to establish sufficient ground and probable cause of their involvement in the crimes defies rational explanation.
Aguilar appeared in a wheelchair to give an interview to the media in late October, in which he denied any part in burning the site. He said he was in hospital the day the arson allegedly took place, suffering from swollen feet due to diabetes.
When police arrested Galit from his house in Silang, Cavite, on Nov. 3, he was reportedly bedridden. Due to his diabetes, Galit's leg requires amputation, which is scheduled in the coming days.
These two are among 72 people, 30 of whom are activists and leaders of progressive organizations, charged with murder in the March 2006 incident. The allegations against these persons conflict sharply with their own stories denying involvement, and raise serious questions as to how prosecutors identified them.
The profiles, affiliations and work backgrounds of persons charged and arrested illustrate a continued pattern of targeted attacks against activists in the country. The practice of filing highly questionable and incomprehensible charges in court has increased, although killings have sharply dropped. This illustrates the de facto use of the prosecution system against those critical of the government.
The plight of these activists and their colleagues, forced to endure detentions and trials on questionable charges, illustrates the misuse of the prosecution system and suggests political motives.
Today, observers perceive prosecutors as accomplices of the police in filing fabricated charges in court. Their judgment and reasoning are incomprehensible; their authority is both neglected and abused. The complicity of state prosecutors in allowing themselves to be used as a de facto political tool threatens the security, life and liberty of anyone who is critical of the government and therefore a potential victim of false accusations.
(Danilo Reyes is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a regional human rights NGO in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the organization's work on the Philippines. Previously, he worked as a human rights activist and journalist in the Philippines.)