2019: From judgment to justice

By Benjamin Pulta

December 31, 2019, 9:00 am

<p><strong>VICTORY FOR JUSTICE.</strong> Maguindanao (2nd District) Rep. Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu (in white polo shirt) does a closed fist gesture along with relatives of the Maguindanao massacre during the case's promulgation in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City on Thursday (Dec. 19, 2019). Among the victims of the massacre in November 2009 were Mangudadatu's wife and two sisters. <em>(PNA photo by Joey O. Razon)</em></p>

VICTORY FOR JUSTICE. Maguindanao (2nd District) Rep. Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu (in white polo shirt) does a closed fist gesture along with relatives of the Maguindanao massacre during the case's promulgation in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City on Thursday (Dec. 19, 2019). Among the victims of the massacre in November 2009 were Mangudadatu's wife and two sisters. (PNA photo by Joey O. Razon)

MANILA – The year 2019 is one for the books for the Department of Justice which dispensed judgment over celebrated cases, a year that also saw an end, under the Duterte administration, to many glaring social injustices in the country.

It also saw the judiciary turning another page in its history under another Chief Justice and new magistrates.

Maguindanao massacre: an end to impunity

The saying “Justice delayed is justice denied” seemed to be an exception for the Maguindanao massacre case as December saw the end of the 10-year elusive search for justice of the families of the 57 victims, including 32 journalists, killed in the Maguindanao massacre dubbed as the worst single attack against media workers in recent history.

In her long-awaited decision last December 19, the conviction of eight members of the Ampatuan clan and 20 others for 57 counts of murder by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 served as an early Christmas present for the families of the victims.

Meted with the penalty of reclusion perpetua (up to 40 years imprisonment) without parole are former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., Datu Anwar Sajid “Datu Ulo” Ampatuan, Datu Anwar “Datu Ipi” Ampatuan Jr., Insp. Saudi Mokamad, PO1 Jonathan Engid, Abedin Alamada, Talembo “Tammy” Masukat, Theng P. Sali, Manny Ampatuan, Nasser Esmael, C/Insp. Sukarno Dicay, Supt. Abusama Mundas Maguid, and Supt. Bahnarin Kamaong.

Also found guilty were Datu Anwar Ampatuan Sr., Tato Tampogao, Mohades Ampatuan, Mohamad T. Datumanong, Misuari Ampatuan, Taya Bangkulat, Salik Bangkulat, Thong Guiamano, Sonny K. Pindi, Armando Ambalgan, Kudza Masukat Uguia, Edres Kasan, Zacaria P. Akil, and Samaon Andatuan.

Meanwhile, those sentenced to suffer the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment of six to 10 years for being accessories to the crime are P/Insp. Michael Joy Macaraeg, PO3 Felix Eñate, PO3 Abibudin Abdulgani, PO3 Rasid Anton, PO2 Hamad Nana, PO2 Saudi Pasutan, PO2 Saudiar Ulah, PO1 Esprilieto Lejarso, PO1 Narkuok Mascud, PO1 Pia Kamidon, PO1 Esmael Guialal, PO1 Arnulfo Soriano, PO1 Herich Amaba, P/SInsp. Abdulgapor Abad and Bong Andal.

Fifty-seven of those acquitted include several members of the Ampatuan clan. Solis-Reyes also ordered the accused to pay damages totaling to PHP130 million.

Datu Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan Jr., one of the prime suspects in the Maguindanao massacre case. (Screengrab from PTV)

A total of 101 individuals faced the trial out of the initial 197 who were originally included in the indictment. Meanwhile, 117 were arrested while 80 remain at large. As the case dragged for 10 years, 11 of the accused were granted bail while 90 remained under detention.

Out of the 101, 57 accused including indigent litigants and policemen represented by the Public Attorney's Office were acquitted by the court.

Eight have already been discharged and/or released including Vice Mayor Sukarno Badal. Another eight have already died while the case is pending including former Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.

"Their acts were deliberate and obviously in pursuance of their plan to kill Datu Toto or whoever will file his Certificate of Candidacy," the judge said of the principal accused.

The decision also stressed that they were "positively identified and seen by witnesses to have actually participated in the shooting of the 57 innocent victims."

The Maguindanao massacre took place on November 23, 2009 in Sitio Masalay, Buluan town in Maguindanao. The victims were part of a convoy on their way to file the certificate of candidacy in Shariff Aguak of Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu.

While on their way, a private militia of roughly 200 armed men, intercepted the convoy and escorted them to Buluan town in Ampatuan where they were told to get off their vehicles and then shot point-blank.

Mangudadatu’s sister and aunt who were both pregnant were among those brutally killed by the armed men.

Ortega murder case: A good turn

Prior to the Maguindanao massacre ruling, the government's crusade to bring justice to the killing of Palawan environmentalist Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega took a positive turn as the Court of Appeals (CA) in November ordered the reinstatement of criminal charges against former Palawan governor Mario Joel Reyes.

In a 17-page amended decision dated November 28, the appellate court's Special Former Eleventh Division, through Associate Justice Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob, granted the motion for reconsideration filed by the Office of the Solicitor General.

The appellate court set aside its January 2018 decision and directed the Palawan Regional Trial Court (RTC) to issue a warrant of arrest against Reyes "and to conduct proceedings with purposeful dispatch".

Associate Justices Danton Q. Bueser, Victoria Isabel A. Paredes, Maria Filomena D. Singh and Rafael Antonio M. Santos concurred.

In granting the government's motion, the CA acknowledged flaws in its original decision clearing Reyes.

"Indeed, the assailed decision has set the parameters of probable cause too high. The defenses raised by petitioner (Reyes), particularly the inadmissibility of (witness Rodolfo) Edrad extrajudicial confession and the alleged inconsistencies in the statements of the prosecution witnesses, are matters which are evidentiary in nature and best threshed out in a full-blown trial."

"Thus, the proper course of action is not to dismiss the case but to proceed to trial. The Court, at this particular stage of the proceedings, cannot arrogate upon itself the task of dwelling on factual and evidentiary matters," the CA said.

The court said the Palawan RTC Branch 52 did not commit grave abuse of discretion in issuing its March 27, 2012 omnibus order denying Reyes' motion to suspend proceedings and its August 29, 2013 order which denied his motion to recall the warrant of arrest.

Recamata who was caught after a police chase had initially claimed he shot Ortega in a botched robbery. He later implicated others including Rodolfo Edrad Jr.A recovered firearm used by Recamata was found to be registered to former Palawan provincial administrator Atty. Romeo M. Seratubias. Arturo Regalado later surrendered to authorities claiming he had purchased the gun from Seratubias.

Edrad claimed he was a former bodyguard of former Marinduque Governor Jose Antonio Carrion and Reyes. Edrad also implicated Regalado as part of the plot.

In 2016, the RTC also found Regalado guilty for the murder of Ortega.

The victim was a keen critic of the local government's policy on mining.

Facing the ‘water giants’

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra sees the government conducting earnestly its review early next year of the 1997 agreements with water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water Inc.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra. (File photo)

A key issue will be the passing on of the Corporate Income Tax (CIT) to the consumers, Guevarra said to newsmen.

The contested issue of whether the water companies may pass on the cost of paying the taxes to consumers had been cited by the president as among the lopsided conditions in the deals.

He added that any new talks with the concessionaires will be a "renegotiation" and not a continuation of arbitration proceedings. Generally, UNCITRAL (United National Commission on International Trade Law) rules on arbitration require confidentiality.

Manila Water is a subsidiary of the Ayala Corp., while businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific Investments Corp. owns a controlling stake in Maynilad.

The two private companies distribute water in Metro Manila and other parts of the country under agreements signed with state regulator Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in 1997.

In March, supply interruptions started in various areas supplied by Maynilad and Manila Water due to increased demand and reduced water levels of dams amid a scorching dry season in the country.

President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at the water concessionaires after a review conducted by the DOJ showed the water contracts were “onerous and disadvantageous to the people, relative the terms or periods, government non-interference, as well as concessionaire indemnification for losses”.

Due to the two provisions, the government was ordered by the Singapore arbitration court to pay about PHP3.6 billion to Maynilad and recently, PHP7.4 billion to Manila Water as compensation for losses and damages.

Guevarra said another onerous provision is the extension of these contracts to 2037, considering that the extension was granted 12 years to 13 years before the original expiration of the 25-year concession agreements in 2022.

Reds' amparo cases junked

In July, the Court of Appeals (CA) turned down the petition for writs of amparo and habeas data sought by the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) against the government.

In its 26-page decision dated July 26 by Associate Justice Pedro Corales, the appellate court's former special fifteenth division denied the militant group's suit, stressing that the Court "cannot issue the privilege of the writ of habeas data when the grounds invoked in support of the petition are vague or doubtful." Associate Justices Stephen C. Cruz and Germano D. Legaspi concurred.

The ruling said even without considering the immunity from suit of the Chief Executive, there is "(no) evidence of President (Rodrigo) Duterte's involvement in the alleged violations."

"We arduously examined the records and the evidence presented but found nothing that would point to a specific act committed by Pres. Duterte which violates or tends to violate petitioners' right to life, liberty or security, Petitioners (NUPL) failed to prove that the president's declaration of his intention to kill suspected NPA (New People's Army) members and communists was directed to them," the tribunal said.

The court, in its decision, said that while individual petitioners have locus standi (right to appear in a court), "NUPL has no legal standing to file the instant petition on behalf of its members " and underscored that there is no substantial evidence of alleged violations or threats of violations of rights to life, liberty and security.

The writ of habeas data will not issue purely property or commercial concerns, or "when the grounds invoked in support of the petition are vague and doubtful."

The CA added and explained that "as the writ of amparo is sought individually and granted individually, the Court is tasked to assess the situations of the petitioners individually, rather than lumping together various individual experiences which may produce an inaccurate and misleading impression of merit."

"In this case, petitioners failed to show how their right to privacy was violated given that their names, membership and particular position in or affiliation with NUPL, their photographs, and even the locations of their offices are already of public knowledge and readily accessible even to civilians," the CA explained.

The petitioners, the CA noted, "are known personalities often featured in news reports."

"There is also no evidence that respondents are keeping records of investigations and other reports about the petitioners or their alleged ties with the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines)-NPA. At the point of being repetitive, petitioners merely submitted copies of the flyers and posters with their photographs but failed to prove that respondents had access to such materials. The actions and recourses taken by the petitioners to secure the data including the location of files and the person in possession of the information are not also specified in contravention of the requirements under SEC. 6 of the rule on the writ of habeas data," it said.

The court also pointed out that the 500 or so NUPL members for whom the special protection of the writ is sought and who remain completely unidentified in these proceedings, "have not even shown any cognizable manner by which they supposedly clothed NUPL, or its officers with authority to represent them before us".

The tribunal also noted that the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) under Assistant Solicitor General Angelita Villanueva-Miranda made a strong case in pointing out the shortcomings of the NUPL suit.

The OSG, for one, noted in the case that the alleged harassment to one of the petitioners happened before President Duterte’s assumption of office and, in any event, the Chief Executive should be “excluded from the case in view of his presidential immunity from suit.”

"The Office of the Solicitor General said the petitioners' failure to allege specific facts, attribute actual unlawful acts, threats or omissions to respondents, and attach supporting affidavits or otherwise substantiate their claims with independent and credible evidence,” the ruling stated.

The CA also noted that the Solgen pointed out that NUPL "failed to show that the purported (anti-communist) vandalism, flyers, posters, graffiti, or anonymous list were perpetrated by government agents, under government direction or with respondent's participation.”

The petition was originally filed last April 15 before the Supreme Court and was later remanded to the CA.

Aside from President Duterte, named respondents in the suit were National Security Adviser Gen. (Ret.) Hermogenes Esperon Jr.; Defense Secretary, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Delfin Lorenzana; then AFP Chief of Staff, Gen.Benjamin Madrigal; AFP Deputy Commander for Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Fernando Trinidad; ISAFP Chief, Maj.Gen. Erwin Neri; then Philippine Army Commanding Gen., Lt. Gen. Macairog Alberto; and AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil-Military Operations, Maj. Gen. Antonio Parlade.

GCTA assailed

This year also saw months of controversy over the alleged undue advantage and favors extended to notorious convicts at the New Bilibid Prison under the erroneous application of the Expanded Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law.

When the dust settled, a new director general, Geraldo Bantag, was appointed to the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to impose a no-non sense clean up of Bilibid.

Demolition of shanties inside the New Bilibid Prison. (File photo)

A new manual for the Good Conduct and Time Allowance (GCTA) computation of inmates and detainees under Republic Act 10592 or the Expanded GCTA Law is also nearing completion.

Guevarra said there is no interruption in granting the benefits to entitled persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) under the said law even if the manual is not yet complete since GCTA PDLs continue under the interim implementing rules and regulations drafted jointly by the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Even without that operating manual the computation of the GCTA based on the revised implementing rules and regulations that the DOJ came up with together with the DILG are enough to continue the processing of the GCTA, Guevarra said.

He added that it may be completed by the end of January next year.

The GCTA law was marred in controversy following earlier reports that convicted rapist and murderer, former Calauan, Laguna mayor Antonio Sanchez, is among those who will be entitled to an early release from prison due to a June 25 Supreme Court (SC) ruling.

‘Revived’ hope for government nurses

In October, the hope of government nurses to get proper wages was resuscitated as the Supreme Court upheld the validity of a provision of Republic Act 9173 or the Philippine Nursing Act of 2002 which sets their minimum pay to Salary Grade (SG) 15.

The court, through then Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, ruled in favor of the petition of Ang Nars Partylist challenging the validity of a congressional resolution and Executive Order 811, which effectively reduced the legislated minimum pay of government nurses from SG 15 to SG 11.

The SC said Joint Resolution 4, passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in June 2009 being a mere resolution, cannot amend or repeal a full-fledged law such as Republic Act (RA) 9173 or the Philippine Nursing Act of 2002.

It said that similarly, EO 811, which implements Joint Resolution 4, is also not a law but an executive directive and cannot prevail over RA 9173.

Joint Resolution 4 authorized the President to modify the compensation and position classification system of civilian personnel and the base pay schedule of military and uniformed personnel in government.

EO 811 implementing the said resolution mandated that the salary grade for the position of Nurse 1 be from SG 10 to SG11, way below the salary grade for government nurses under Section 32 of RA 9173 which is SG 15.

The court granted the plea of the petitioners Ang Nars Party-list, represented by Cong. Leah Primitiva G. Samaco-Paquiz, to declare as valid Section 32 of the Philippine Nursing Act.

However, the court did not grant the prayer of the petitioners to compel the implementation of Section 32 of RA 9173 since its implementation would necessarily require a law passed by Congress providing the necessary funds for it.

RA 9173, signed into law by Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2002, provides among others that "the minimum base pay of nurses working in public health institutions shall not be lower than salary grade 15 prescribed under Republic Act 6758, otherwise known as the “Compensation and Classification Act of 1989:”

For nurses working in local government units, adjustments to their salaries shall be per Section 10 of the said law.

On June 17, 2009, Arroyo, in implementing Joint Resolution 4, issued EO 811, and Section 6 of the said EO 811 mandated that the salary grade (SG) for the position “Nurse I” be increased from SG 10 to SG 11.

Paquiz wrote letters to the Department of Health, Department of Justice, and Department of Budget and Management and sought clarification on why government nurses’ salaries were downgraded to SG 11 when under RA 9173, they are entitled to SG 15.

Having received no satisfactory response from the respondent agencies, Paquiz took the matter to the SC in 2015.

Under the last tranche of Executive Order 201 signed by former President Benigno Aquino III, SG 11 and SG 15 are equivalent to a monthly basic pay of PHP20,754 and PHP30,531, respectively.

Seniority prevails: Peralta is new Chief Justice

Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, who comes from a long line of politicians, bowed out of service in October after reaching mandatory retirement age 70 on October 18.

President Rodrigo Duterte once more upheld his preference for sustaining the rule of seniority in appointing head magistrates in the high court when he appointed then Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta as Bersamin’s replacement.

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta. (Photo from SC)

Peralta had been the ponente of a ruling that said drug charges for minor amounts of narcotics may be pleaded down, and the controversial implementing rules of the GCTA law.

As top judge, Peralta said he would eye the automation of court processes when possible, including working for the exclusion from the Salary Standardization Law of court employees to address the lack of competent personnel, such as court stenographers, who tend to leave court positions for better-paying employment in the private sector.

Peralta added that he is eyeing the streamlining of the court's procurement processes by creating a permanent public bidding committee to replace the ad hoc body composed of heads of the different sub-offices of the SC.

The ad hoc system, Peralta said, tends to become an added burden to the heads of offices.

Prior to his appointment to the SC in 2009, Peralta served as associate justice of the Sandiganbayan in 2002 and later became its presiding justice in 2008.

He also served as judge of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 95, which handled heinous crimes.

Currently, only one vacancy is left in the 15-seat High Court after President Duterte appointed CA Associate Justices Edgardo de los Santos and Mario Lopez replacing Francis Jardeleza and Carpio, who retired on September 26 and October 26 respectively.

Earlier this year, Duterte appointed CA Associate Justices Amy Lazaro-Javier, Henri Jean Paul Inting and Rodil Zalameda to the SC. (PNA)