Karapatan urges SC to review, revise rules on issuance of search warrants following Bloody Sunday raids

As the Supreme Court reviews its system of issuing search warrants in an en banc session today, human rights watchdog Karapatan urged that the court should heed the calls to revise the rules on the issuance of such warrants amid what the group described as an “increasingly alarming pattern of killings and arrests of activists, political dissenters, and human rights defenders in the implementation of search warrants” following the killings of nine and arrests of six activists during the Bloody Sunday police raids in Southern Tagalog two weeks ago.

“We are alarmed that the issuance of search warrants by trial court judges have effectively become death warrants. The killings and arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders as well as the increasingly deadly raids on their homes and offices in the implementation of such warrants should be addressed. The Supreme Court must review its system on the issuance of search warrants, and they must take action now before more lives are lost,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated.

Before the recent raids in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Rizal last March 7, Palabay said that the issuance of search warrants have also led to the killings of nine indigenous Tumandok leaders as well as the arrest of 16 others in Capiz and Iloilo December 30 last year. She also recalled the search warrants issued by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 89 which led to the arrests of 76 individuals, including in the raids in Manila and Negros on October and November 2019 as well as the in raids throughout Metro Manila on International Human Rights Day last year.

According to Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez in a memo dated March 12, a total of 63 applications for search warrants to be served in different areas of the Southern Tagalog region were filed before the Manila RTC on March 1. The applications were heard by four judges in two days, and 42 of the 63 search warrant applications were granted by Manila RTC judges while 19 were denied and two were withdrawn; in Antipolo, nine applications were filed and four were granted, four were denied, while one remains pending. The 46 warrants were served simultaneously on March 7.

While Marquez noted in the memo that “the issuance of the search warrants by the judges and their service or implementation by the law enforcers are two different acts,” Palabay averred that “it is the duty of the Supreme Court to ensure that issuance of search warrants undergo rigorous scrutiny and questioning. Hearing 63 applications in two days already calls into the question the process in which these search warrants were issued by judges and not just how they were implemented by law enforcers during these raids.”

Yesterday, March 22, 139 lawyers led by the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers wrote to the Supreme Court to propose amendments to rules on the issuance and service of search warrants following the Bloody Sunday raids. In the letter, the lawyers noted that “[r]ecently, Mandaluyong RTC Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio and Bacolod RTC Judge Ana Celeste Bernad, quashed warrants issued by Judge Villavert for violations of procedural and constitutional requirements as well as material inconsistencies in the applications themselves.”

While Palabay said that the Supreme Court en banc’s consideration of the use of body cameras by law enforcers in the service of search warrants is a welcome development, she nonetheless asserted that “using body cameras as part of law enforcement operations such as serving search warrants are only effective as long as rights-based protocols that uphold data privacy and accountability mechanisms are in place — and such move still does not absolve the courts of their responsibility in upholding procedural and constitutional requirements in the issuance of search warrants. They cannot simply pass the burden and blame on law enforcers alone whenever the implementation of these warrants results in violations of people’s civil and political rights.”

“The courts now have the burden of heeding calls to review and appropriately amend its rules on the issuance of search warrants as well as on the issuance of protective writs in light of the use of these warrants to threaten infringe upon the lives, liberty, and security of individuals — particularly those of human rights defenders. How many more must die before the Supreme Court takes action? The clock is ticking, and every second of inaction that passes puts more and more people at risk. They must act now and heed our calls before it is too late,” she ended.