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Rights group questions integrity, independence of Tacloban judge who signed off on questionable search, arrests vs Tacloban 5

February 10, 2020

QUEZON CITY – In a press conference in Quezon City today, human rights group Karapatan questioned the integrity and independence of Judge Eligio Petilla of the Regional Trial Court Branch 44 in Tacloban City, who issued the search warrants effecting the highly questionable search and arrests of five human rights defenders last February 7, 2020.

“We have been wary of judges who facilitate the use of their courts for the judicial harassment of human rights defenders. Are they, in any way, related to executive officials who have been brazenly implementing Executive Order No. 70? Will their signing off on the supposed search warrants in the offices of these organizations result in juicier posts like those magistrates who have done the same?,” said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay.

Karapatan observed that one officer of the court have been “rewarded” with a Supreme Court post after dismissing a petition for the privilege of the writs of amparo and habeas data filed by three non-government organizations last year, while another one is in the running as a Duterte-endorse nominee for a Court of Appeals seat after issuing similar search warrants in October last year, when raids and arrests were also conducted by the police and military in Negros and Manila.

“Whether they have done this to further their careers or out of fear or out of political pressure, the effects are damning – the political persecution of activists and actual harm on their lives, security and liberty. These judges should be ashamed of themselves,” Karapatan said.

Five activists – Alexander Philip Abinguna of Katungod Sinirangang Bisayas – Karapatan, Mira Legion of Bayan, climate justice activist Marissa Cabaljao of People’s Surge, humanitarian worker Mariell Domequill of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio – were arrested during dawn raids by the Philippine National Police in Tacloban City by virtue of Petilla’s search warrants. Karapatan asserts that the supposed evidence, which includes several firearms and explosives materiel, were planted.

“How circumspect has the judge been in personally determining the veracity of reports on the existence of such firearms and explosives in the officers? Did he look for other witnesses, other than the police officers or military intelligence agents who may have reported to him?,” Palabay asked.

Karapatan noted that the planting of evidence by police and military officials have laid the pretext for the filing of false charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against activists resulting in their long incarceration. “There is always presumption of regularity on police and military operations, despite questions on their integrity and adherence to human rights principles. Courts who rubber-stamp such operations should be similarly be doubted,” she averred.

“This case further illustrates the lack of independence of the judiciary in the Philippines, and that all domestic mechanisms of redress, including the courts, have been transformed into factories of trumped up charges and platforms of political persecution of social activists and political dissenters,” Palabay added.

A national solidarity and fact finding mission led by Karapatan is slated in Leyte today, as the inquest proceedings for the five activists are also scheduled for resolution.

“We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of the Tacloban 5 and all political prisoners in the Philippines. We likewise demand the abolition of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is responsible for such rights violations,” Palabay concluded.

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