By Buena Rilyne C. Bernal

Sereno assures due process amid drug killings

Posted on August 26, 2016

AMID the rise in extrajudicial killings which has drawn deeper concern among international observers, particularly human rights groups and even credit raters, the Chief Justice held a lengthy news conference on Thursday, in part to assert that the judiciary is doing its best to ensure due process.

“We are very proactive, as proactive as we can be in trying to ensure Constitutional rights are to be respected. But you must remember that our role comes in when a justiciable controversy is before us,” explained Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno on Thursday during her annual media briefing, “CJ Meets the Press.”

“We cannot act unless there is something official submitted to us,” she added later on, when pressed by journalist Malou C. Mangahas about the influence of the courts on the reported increase in summary executions specifically of drug suspects.

Ms. Sereno said it is not out of shyness that the Supreme Court sticks to this reactive role but is simply a matter of “constitutional design.”

“The Constitution requires us to be the last actor in this area,” she said, adding that the Commission on Human Rights is the body mandated to probe the grim phenomenon of killings since President Rodrigo R. Duterte was sworn into office on June 30.

This stance is in contrast to an earlier position by the Supreme Court on the watch of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, who had issued a judicial order conceiving prerogative writs to help resolve the enforced disappearances during that time -- the politically charged presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Mr. Puno at the time had called a summit to help identify legal loopholes, such as those presumed in the Human Security Act of 2007, amid the human rights violations back then. The most prominent disappearance at the time, still unresolved to this day, is that of activist Jonas Burgos, the son of the late journalist Jose Burgos, Jr., a fierce advocate of press freedom during the Marcos dictatorship.

Ms. Sereno when asked for comment said even the Puno-conceived writs “presume that there will be sufficient cooperation by those who can do the investigation.”

“And the hope of the people is that they will do their mandate,” she said, referring to law enforcement agencies led by the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Over 600 suspected drug peddlers and users mostly coming from destitute families have died in summary killings across the nation since Mr. Duterte assumed the presidency. He won by a landslide of 16 million votes last May on a platform of ending in half a year the country’s drug menace and its resulting widespread criminality.

More than a thousand, going by modest estimates, have died in the wave of police operations and arrests, with not a few allegedly fighting back arresting officers. Human rights advocates have criticized this now-standard defense by the police.

Asked if such arrests were made with court-issued warrants, Ms. Sereno said she was not made aware if the rise in arrests were complemented by an increase in warrants issued by the lower courts.

Mr. Duterte’s aggressive crackdown on drugs has also led to hundreds of thousands of drug users surrendering to the PNP for rehabilitation.

Ms. Sereno for her part said the unacceptability of extrajudicial killings is beyond debate.

“Whether killings can be rationalized by frustration over justice....I think that is a question you know the answer to,” she said with a seeming look of concern.

She cited steps by the judiciary in response to the campaign against drugs, a key pillar of Mr. Duterte’s program of government.

“We have just added 240 more courts to our corps of drugs courts, basically making all 955 Regional Trial Courts as drugs courts,” Ms. Sereno explained.

But she also noted “the absence of police witnesses, the dearth of prosecutors or public attorneys, and the weak evidence of the prosecution in relation to the rules on chain of custody and inventory of seized drugs and paraphernalia.”

“The already clogged dockets of courts, which we are doing our best to reduce, is not made lighter by the high inflow of drugs cases,” she said.

Now on its fourth year, “CJ Meets the Press” features yearly updates on judicial reforms under the 56-year-old Ms. Sereno’s leadership.

Appealing for trust in the justice system, she assured that court processes and trials are now expedited.

With the e-subpoena, an automated notification system sent to individuals summoned in court hearings, police attendance in trials increased to 71% last year and this year.

Automation and the use of court technology in case management are among the reform priorities of the Chief Justice, who said she believes technology makes court processes less prone to corruption.

The launch of the judiciary’s continuous trial system was also among the Philippines’ significant improvements in combating human trafficking, according to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report from the United States.

The system had a pilot run in regional trial courts and metropolitan trial courts in Manila, Quezon City, and Makati in September 2014. Ms. Sereno estimated that trial time would be reduced from five years to 90 days under the system.

Likewise, the SC itself was able to dispose a record-high of over 5,000 cases in 2015. It has a year-to-date disposal tally of 3,033 cases.

“I thought that the statistics I just read out to you would themselves prove that the wheels of justice are hastening and that systemic problems that had bedeviled the justice system before are being addressed the way they should be addressed -- not episodic, not isolated,” she said.

Ms. Sereno is now on her fourth year as the first female leader of the Philippines’ 15-member High Court. She has 14 more years as chief justice until the mandatory retirement of 70 -- a rare opportunity for a sitting chief justice to institute long-lasting judicial reforms.

She said these changes set the “gold standard in public service,” adding that people “must have a reason to trust government.”

But she also expressed concern over “the ability of the prosecution services and the public attorneys to keep up with the very fast pace in which judicial reform is being undertaken.”

She said the justice department files so many cases but does not have enough prosecutors to handle these, questioning if there is a quota being met.

Clogging of court dockets is a major impediment in case disposal rates of the judiciary. State records from 2005 to 2010 show lower courts were confronted with an annual average caseload of more than one million -- equivalent to an average of around 4,221 cases per working day.

Ms. Sereno said she does not know of any judiciary handling cases of the magnitude of the Maguindanao massacre, with 58 victims and 195 accused, as well as the Zamboanga siege cases with their 284 accused.

Some 32 journalists were killed in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, during a period of tense local politics, by a hundred armed men in broad daylight near a pre-excavated mass grave.

Ms. Sereno condemned the impunity in cases of journalists’ killings, saying the PNP should “ensure warrants of arrest are effected.”

She said Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes was ordered by the SC to “focus solely” on the case.

“Special trial guidelines have been issued to fast-track reception of evidence and to allow her to issue partial judgments, all of this so that the trial can be expedited. Hearings are continuous and thrice-weekly,” she said.

The Zamboanga siege of 2013 also saw civilians held hostage during a clash between rebels and armed forces.

The same rules of procedure in the Maguindanao massacre cases were adapted to expedite the trial of the Zamboanga Siege cases, said Ms. Sereno.

Exhorting new lawyers, the Chief Justice, an evangelical Christian, reminded them to “live in such a way that the afterlife mattered,” adding that the legal profession is a “noble” one.

She also warned judges against perceived conflicts of interest, responding to a question about her reaction to the courtesy call of justices of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan to Mr. Duterte.

Sandiganbayan Associate Justices Jose R. Hernandez, Samuel R. Martires, Alex L. Quiroz, and Geraldine Faith A. Econg visited Mr. Duterte in Davao on Aug. 4 in what was reported by state media as a “courtesy call.”

“We must be perceived as giving no occasion for people to doubt our independence and integrity,” Ms. Sereno said.

The Sandiganbayan tries criminal cases of errant public officials.

“It’s a bright red line you must not cross. My hope is our people support the judiciary’s bid to be fully independent,” she also said.

During a panel that included journalists Ms. Mangahas, Melinda Q. de Jesus and Michael L. Tan, Ms. Sereno also insisted on her independence as chief justice.

“I don’t think I have pleased any president yet,” she said.

The Sereno-led court in 2014 became subjected to a virtual, protracted reprimand by then president Benigno S.C. Aquino III, who appointed her in 2012, when it struck down portions of his spending program as unconstitutional.

At that time, Ms. Sereno said in response to Mr. Aquino’s tirade that her loyalty is to the Constitution and not to the appointing power.

Ms. Sereno also appealed for reconsideration for items deleted in the judiciary’s proposed 2017 budget including funds for “salaries and benefits of 760 employees in 50 family courts.”

The law for such courts was enacted in 1997 but allotment for 48 of them only came this year, she said.

In the proposed 2017 budget, the judiciary requested funds for the equipment of the first 48 family courts and the 50 yet to be organized.

“We are now processing the organization of [an] additional 50 family courts this year or next year,” she added, as she explained the need to reinstate the deleted item in the 2017 state appropriations.

“I don’t understand why,” said Ms. Sereno, noting as well that family courts will “provide spaces” in cases where minors are involved.

Family courts need video equipment to pre-record testimonies especially in cases of abuse and rape of minors, as these children are often intimidated when testifying about their ordeals.

“Our requests are very modest,” Ms. Sereno said.