Officers behind 'Morong 43' detention allowed to seek dismissal of cases

MANILA, Philippines – Seven law enforcement officers charged for the alleged illegal detention of the "Morong 43" health workers in 2010 were given clearance by the court to seek an outright dismissal of their cases.

The Sandiganbayan's 7th Division granted the motion for leave to file demurrer to evidence of army generals Jorge Segovia, Aurelio Baladad, Joselito Reyes, and Cristobal Zaragoza; and police officers Marion Balonglong, Allan Nobleza, and Jovily Cabading.

It means that the court will allow the officers to try and have their cases dropped without even presenting their own evidence. The pleading is called a demurrer, and serious enough that it cannot be filed without the clearance of the court.

If the demurrer itself is granted, the officers would be acquitted of violation of Republic Act No. 7438, which defines the rights of persons arrested, detained, or under custodial investigation. If the demurrer is denied, the officers would have to proceed to the presentation of evidence.

Why was it granted?

The health workers, collectively known as the "Morong 43," were detained for 10 months after they were arrested for allegedly conducting explosives training inside a house in Morong, Rizal. The military accused the health workers of being communist rebels. (READ: NPA rebel killed in clash one of 'Morong 43' – military)

Torture charges against the officers have since been dropped at the Ombudsman level, but the charges for violating the rights of an arrested or detained person pushed through.

The officers said the health workers were not able to prove the identities of their lawyers when they were arrested and detained, therefore the officers could not be faulted for violating the workers' right to a counsel.

"The prosecution failed to prove that any of the individual accused obstructed, prevented, or prohibited the complainants' alleged lawyer of choice from conferring with them during their detention," the officers said.

In its comment, the prosecution said there were lawyers outside the camp who wanted to speak to the workers but were not allowed.

Even then, said the prosecution, "for complainants to be able to choose a counsel of their choice, they should have been given access first to any lawyer to choose from...being first-time detainees, they cannot be expected to readily have a counsel of choice."

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) said in a statement on Tuesday, March 12, that they themselves were the ones turned away when they tried to confer with the workers during detention.

"For the record, we were there during [that] harrowing period, first knocking hard on deaf ears and given the runaround for seemingly endless days and then being continuously subjected to all difficulties, circumvention, and harassments when our legal assistance was grudgingly recognized even belatedly," said NUPL president Edre Olalia.

Although the clearance does not guarantee anything for the officers yet, Olalia said it can "validate the public's cynicism whether our courts are the best arenas for redress by the powerless especially at this present time and context."

"If this is a foreboding of an eventual acquittal of these military officials who said and acted as if they were the law that time, then this will again put a premium on impunity and reward human rights violators, many of whom are back in the saddle of power or are salivating if not already savoring their retirement bonanzas," Olalia said.

The 7th Division did not discuss the merits.  

Instead, it just said in a resolution promulgated on March 5: "After carefully reviewing accused's motion for leave and the prosecution's evidence, and further finding the issues and arguments relied by accused to be substantial and not merely to delay the proceedings, the court resolves to grant the same."

The resolution was penned by Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses, with concurrences from Associate Justices Maria Theresa Dolores Gomez Estoesta and Georgina Hidalgo.

Charges for illegal possession of explosives against the health workers were ordered to be dropped by then-president Benigno Aquino III on December 10, 2010, Human Rights Day. The workers were freed later that month. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

image