Negros prosecutor, RTC judge hit for malicious prosecution of Bacolod activist

Police use “John Doe” warrant to pick up innocents 

Makabayan coordinator Romulo Bito-on filed an administrative complaint today with the Supreme Court, against a Bacolod prosecutor and judge for “gross ignorance and misapplication of the law in trumped-up charges” against him.

In his complaint-affidavit, Bito-on claims that Second Assistant Provisional Prosecutor Estefanio S. Libutan Jr. initiated the complaint on the basis of fake affidavits, and that Regional Trial Court Judge Katherine Go irregularly issued a warrant of arrest, as well as several other incorrect orders.

Bito-on, represented by his lawyers and human rights group Karapatan, was released in July 2010 and cleared of the charges against him, as he decried malicious prosecution. The complaint has been filed with the Supreme Court Office of the Court Administrator. The lawyers face possible suspension or disbarment as lawyers, if found that they applied the law with prejudice and gross negligence, in contravention with lawyer’s ethics.

“Karapatan supports Mr. Bito-on in his quest for justice and accountability. All lawyers as social agents of change are duty-bound to ensure the efficient and effective administration of justice. Hence, they should be held accountable if they become party to the military’s scheme of slapping trumped up charges against activists to silence opposition and dissent,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay.

Bito-on is the local coordinator of the progressive Makabayan political party. He was arrested in April 2010 by virtue of the affidavits of two persons, and a “John Doe” warrant upon the motion of Libutan and issued by Go. “John Doe” warrants, per Department of Justice (DOJ) Department Circular No. 50 circa 1990, are issued when the identity of the accused is unknown, and must be amended only when there is certainty as to the names.

Despite the non-appearance of witnesses and lack of specific description pinpointing Bito-on as an accused and to establish probable cause, the initial warrant was amended to name him.

Bito-on was unaware of the charge against him until he was arrested by four men in plain clothes identifying themselves as police, armed with a photocopied arrest warrant.  He was detained at the provincial jail and later arraigned, without the benefit of a preliminary investigation to establish probable cause. Bito-on was granted bail after the prosecution failed to present a witness. 

No witnesses for the prosecution appeared during the case hearings – and the alleged witnesses eventually denied that they ever executed such. The case has been dismissed provisionally. Ultimately, a new affidavit was filed by the prosecution which did not include Bito-on in the list of alleged perpetrators.

The original indictment against Bito-on was for arson in connection with demands for “revolutionary tax”. The prosecutor indicted “15 John Does”, on the strength of the affidavits of two persons, who later executed disclaimers.

“We denounce the pernicious practice of using “John Doe” warrants to arrest anyone, especially to muffle opposition by progressive groups. This practice has been blatantly employed in harassing, intimidating and detaining activists and ordinary citizens, as in the cases of the 72 Southern Tagalog activists and 73 Moro detainees from Basilan who were arbitrarily arrested and detained by virtue of John/Jane Doe warrants. Altogether, the actions of the police, the prosecutors, and an RTC judge illustrates how a culture of impunity is reinforced by incompetence, prejudice and malice,” said Palabay.

Palabay said Karapatan will continue to support efforts of victims and their relatives in challenging anomalous practices that violate due process, engender the rights of civilians, and criminalise political offences.