Karapatan: Quashal of search warrants vs Birondo couple further proof that Villavert’s warrants are based on lies

The quashal of two more search warrants issued by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, this time against peace talks staff Alexander and Winona Birondo, “only serves as further proof that the warrants she churns out are based on lies,” human rights alliance Karapatan asserted, as the group called for the couple’s release and the dismissal of the trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives as well as obstruction of justice against them.

“The ruling to quash the search warrants against the Birondo couple puts into question the credibility of Villavert in issuing these warrants. How come she issued these warrants given the inconsistent and unreliable — if not obviously fabricated — testimonies of the police’s so-called witnesses and informants? This is not mere negligence, especially when the other search warrants she issued have also been voided on similar grounds,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated.

The Birondo couple were initially arrested for obstruction of justice in the morning of July 23, 2019, as the police claimed the couple prevented them from arresting a certain alias “Jet,” whom the couple supposedly harbored in their apartment.  While the couple were brought to Camp Karingal, the police applied for a search warrant before Villavert, which she issued on the same day as they conducted a search at the couple’s apartment that night and recovered guns and a grenade.

Presiding Judge Ferdinand Baylon of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 77, in a resolution dated August 13, 2021, averred, however, that “questions left unanswered and the inconsistencies not clarified” regarding the testimony of informant “Brian. T. Reyes” during the application of the search warrants against the Birondo couple “belies the existence of probable cause which justify the issuance of the search warrants” and therefore, “the warrants should be quashed.”

“Essentially, what was relied upon was only the witness’ sworn statement and no attempt to ask searching and probing was made, insofar as the discovery of the grenade is concerned,” Baylon said regarding the issuance of the first search warrant. On the second warrant, the judge continued that “[a]nother point to consider is the sudden appearance of Mr. Reyes as a witness” as “it was not sufficiently established how Mr. Reyes was acquired/identified by the police as a potential witness.”

Palabay further averred that “while the police drawing up fabricated witnesses, informants, and testimonies to concoct trumped-up charges against activists is not particularly new, this pattern of incredulous witnesses and their testimonies easily getting their way with Judge Villavert in the application of search warrants therefore pins the blame not only on those who applied and executed the warrants but also on those who issued them despite these glaringly questionable testimonies.”

On International Human Rights Day last year, December 10, 2020, journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago were among the seven human rights defenders arrested in the course of police raids conducted in homes and offices of activists using the search warrants issued by Villavert. On March 5, 2021, Salem and Esparago were released after Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio found substantial inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of police officers who conducted the raid and arrests and said that “probable cause was not sufficiently established.”

On March 9, 2021, human rights lawyers received copies of the February 18, 2021 decision of Bacolod City RTC Branch 42 Presiding Judge Ana Celeste Bernad voiding the search warrant issued by Villavert against five human rights defenders who were arrested in the course of the Halloween police raids in Bacolod City and Manila on October 31, 2019. Bernad said in her resolution that the search warrants issued by Villavert should be quashed for “non-conformity with established constitutional rules and evidence.”

“Judge Villavert has already churned out search warrants and facilitated the arrests of at least 76 activists, human rights defenders, peace advocates, peasant leaders, and journalists because of the questionable warrants she issued. She may not only be complicit in the police’s dangerous lies but also a willing instrument of the government’s deadly crackdown on dissent — which is a blatant insult to the independence and integrity of the judiciary,” the Karapatan official stated.

“The Supreme Court must investigate and hold Judge Villavert accountable for her travesty of justice by using our courts for judicial harassment and political persecution, along with other similar judges who have been involved in the issuance of questionable search warrants and their lying accomplices in the police. We laud Judge Baylon for his rigorous scrutiny in dismissing Villavert’s warrants in the case of the Birondos as we assert the call that the couple should be freed immediately,” she ended.