Release arrested and detained activists due to Villavert search warrants, rights group says

Those arrested and detained using the search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert should be released soon, according to rights group Karapatan.

“We call for the immediate release of peace consultants and activists arrested based on search warrants issued by Villavert, and the charges against them should be dismissed,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, following the release of National Democratic Front of the Philippines peace consultant Esterlita Suaybaguio who was arrested on August 26, 2019 and detained based on search warrants issued by the said judge.

Suaybaguio was recently released on September 17, 2021, after she was acquitted of charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against her by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 219 Judge Janet Abergos-Samar. The court decided that the prosecution had failed to prove that she is guilty of the crime, beyond reasonable doubt, and also raised questions about the evidence against her.

“We welcome Suaybaguio’s release, albeit after more than two years of imprisonment, and the dismissal of charges in other courts where these search warrants were scrutinized. This proves that these charges are not only based on fabricated lies - there is a dangerous pattern in the use of courts to harass and attack activists, trade union organizers, and persons targetted by the government’s counterinsurgency,” Palabay said.

To date, this is the fourth case dismissed based on search warrants issued by Villavert. In August 2021, search warrants that led to the arrest and detention of two staff for the peace talks between the government and the NDFP, couple Alexander and Winona Birondo, were quashed by QC RTC Branch 77 Judge Ferdinand Baylon. In March 2021, journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago were released a month after similar charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives were dismissed by Mandaluyong RTC Branch 209 Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio. Salem and Esparago were arrested on December 10, 2020, in a series of raids in houses and offices, also using search warrants issued by Villavert.

Also in March 2021, human rights lawyers received copies of a decision by Bacolod City RTC Branch 42 Presiding Judge Ana Celeste Bernad, which voided the search warrant issued by Villavert against five human rights defenders arrested in the series of raids in Bacolod City and Manila on October 31, 2019.

According to Palabay, the court decisions have rendered questionable the searches or raids done by the PNP and AFP since 2019. The police and military, she said, have violated the people’s right to privacy, domicile, and at the same time, they should face charges for the unjust arrest and detention of many persons, a number of them still in jail because of their illegal raids.

Out of the 76 individuals arrested based on search warrants issued by Villavert since 2019, 22 individuals remain in prison, while two other continue to face charges as they were released on bail. NDFP consultants Vicente Ladlad and Renante Gamara, urban poor organizer Reina Mae Nasino, trade unionists Dennise Velasco and Joel Demate and Negrense activists Romulo Bito-on and wife Mermalyn are among the 22.

“Prosecuting these officials involved in illegal raids, arrests, detention and red-tagging of activists and individuals should serve as a lesson for authorities that will not always be immune from accountability. They will have their day in court,” Palabay said.