MANILA — Former chief justice Reynato Puno, along with human rights advocates and lawyers, said tedious legal proceedings in the country contribute largely to the lack of prosecution and delivering justice to various cases of human rights violations in the country.
The forum, funded by the European Union’s Philippine Justice and Support Program II (EPJUST II), looked into the legal proceedings and socio-economic conditions in the country that, they deemed, have contributed to the impunity that persists in cases of human rights violations.
Pamela Fahey of the EPJUST II said the criminal justice system is a network that includes the police investigating the case, the prosecutor that would file the case and the court to deliver justice. “If one would fail,” she said, “all the others would fail.”
A failing criminal justice system, Fahey said, could sometime bring innocent people to jail.
“Not only do you have innocent people in jail but also perpetrators who are free to do other crimes,” she added.
Bo Astrom of EPJUST, who joined the fact finding mission to the Philippines back in 2008, said they have noted the varying numbers of human rights violations per organization, the huge backlog in the cases prosecuted, distrust on government forces, how investigation of cases has not followed up on strong evidences needed to ensure prosecution and how no one has been held accountable for the crimes.
“The current situation continues because someone is letting it go,” Astrom said.
‘Linear’ criminal justice system
Former chief justice Puno said the 1987 Philippine Constitution stipulated a more expansive set of rights. The Constitution’s provision for respect for human rights, for one, was expanded to include the right to dignity, equality of women, balanced and healthful ecology, rights of people under custodial investigation, socio-economic rights, among others.
Puno said the Philippine Constitution’s promotion of human rights even went further than that of the United States, from which it was patterned.
Apart from the constitution, the Philippine government is also a signatory to international treaties to respect and promote human rights.
The Supreme Court, Puno said, has been given great powers to check abuses of other branches of the government and to protect the rights of the people. But a trend, he added, arises as a shift of power from elected government officials to the appointed justices of the judiciary.
Yet, the very same tedious legal proceedings have left many victims and families of victims of human rights violations unable to get the justice they long for.
Fahey, for one, noted that prosecutors in the Philippines are not directly working with police officers investigating the case. Such practice, she said, have resulted to a passing of the buck between the two while the person is in jail waiting for the decision.
If prosecutors would be allowed to work directly with the police, Fahey said, the probable cause needed for a case to prosper could be determined in minutes. Preliminary hearings, which are conducted by the prosecutors to determine probable cause, are no longer needed and this would shorten the legal proceedings.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmernares said preliminary hearings would not work in cases such as extrajudicial killings as its alleged perpetrators, military enlisted men, usually does not respond to subpoenas, citing the case of Benjamin Bayles, an activist murdered on June 14, 2010.
Bayles was murdered by two suspects who claimed that they were Roger Bahon and Ronnie Caurino. The two claimed they were soldiers when they were apprehended by the police shortly after Bayles was shot. The military, for its part, denied they were soldiers.
“During a budget hearing (in 2011), the AFP was forced to admit that the suspects were members of the military,” Colmenares said.
Subpoenas were repeatedly issued to the AFP but, Colmenares said, it was only in 2013 when Adjutant General Alexis Gopico and Lt. Col. Ricardo Bayhon testified before the court and identified the suspects as military enlisted men.
Edra Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers said police officers are often “sloppy” in their investigation and that they would even pass on the blame to the victims.
Astrom said that in many cases of human rights violations, there were no evidences to back up the case. The police, he added, also did not receive sufficient training when it comes to the proper conduct of investigating a crime scene.
For one, if the killers were seen smoking or drinking soda in a nearby store before the crime, the cigarette butts and the straw used to drink soda should have been collected as forensic evidence. The common practice of the police, he said, is to merely collect the empty shells used in the killing.
Finding the motive for killing the person, he added, should also guide investigators of the case.
“There is always a reason why the person is killed. There should be a motive and it would help the investigation,” Astrom said.
As for the killing of journalists, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chairperson Rowena Paraan said Task Force Usig is “toothless” as it does not have men of its own to look into cases on the ground.
As a result, the investigation of journalist killings, under Task Force Usig, is only as good as the work done by the police on the ground, Paraan said, adding that, so far, only the hired killers, not the masterminds of journalist killings, have been charged before the court.
The EPJUST II, Astrom said, has provided police investigators with cameras and computers with corresponding software to help them investigate cases. He said that this should give the Philippine National Police no reason not to do its job.
Olalia said legal proceedings are expensive and inaccessible to the poor while constitutional rights have remained “paper rights” and international treaties on human rights as “lip service.”
Puno said 95 percent of the problems encountered by victims and families of victims of human rights violations arise from the executive department as shown by the incompetence of the police and the prosecutor not working with the police, which, he added, could be changed by a circular from the Department of Justice.
Colmenares noted that former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration was marred with the following: cheating, stealing and killing. Yet, he added, President Aquino never mentioned his human rights agenda in his four previous state of the nation addresses.
The only time Aquino mentioned human rights, he said, was in 2010, when the president claimed that 50 percent of extrajudicial killings were already on its way to resolution. But, Colemnares said, he was only referring to six cases and that charges for the three cases were already filed before courts.
“Even if we provide resources, if it is not utilized, it would be a waste of time,” Astrom said.
Colmenares said the problem of violations of human rights emanates from how the elite class has control over the government and that its desire to protect their vested interests would include enacting “anti-people policies.”
“These policies would result to dissent. And a government that is intolerant of dissent would violate the rights of the people to protect its policies. Repressing rights is essential in protecting their policies” Colmenares said.
To end human rights violations, Colmenares said, it is important to look into meta-legal actions such as campaigns conducted by progressive organizations and pressures from the international community.
Educating the people of their rights would also be of big help, he added. “Just like a rubber band, the coverage (of human rights) would depend on how strong you assert it.”