January 02, 2014

Alarm bells for 2014

2013 is past; 2014 is here.  Ideally each New Year should be met with great enthusiasm, optimism and anticipation of good, if not better, things to come.  Or so most of us can only hope.  But the reality in this country is that injustice does not get righted nor an oppressive status quo overturned, without being consciously acted upon, opposed and resisted especially by those who are on the receiving end of the injustice or worse, of an entire unjust system.  Yes, year in and year out.

A case in point is the wrongful conviction of political prisoner Eduardo Sarmiento for illegal possession of a fragmentation grenade and his punishment with reclusion perpetua (20 - to 40 years imprisonment in the National Penitentiary) at the close of the year 2013.  Mr. Sarmiento is an acknowledged consultant in the peace negotiations between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) but he has been languishing in Camp Crame detention center since 2009 or close to five years. 

Mr. Sarmiento was arrested, detained and falsely charged at a time when Oplan Bantay Laya and the Interagency Legal Action Group  (IALAG) were in full swing in a desperate but futile attempt to beat Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s self-imposed deadline of crushing the insurgency before her term was to end in 2010.

His release as a bona fide holder of a Document of Identification under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) was anticipated as part of goodwill measures for the peace talks to resume full steam after being at its longest impasse under the GMA regime. In fact, only three NDFP consultants needed to be released based on prior agreements between the two sides in order to jumpstart the bogged peace talks this time under the Aquino administration.

Mr. Sarmiento, whose only remaining case was alleged illegal possession of an explosive when arrested (he was acquitted of the charges of arson, multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder in Samar courts), appeared to be a good candidate for release.  But with the refusal of the Aquino government to recognize and implement the JASIG and with its hostility to peace talks with the NDFP, Mr. Sarmiento has instead ended up a victim of wrongful conviction.

Despite the abject failure of the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the presiding judge arrived at a guilty verdict and in the process displayed her partiality against the accused.  This same judge refused to inhibit herself from hearing the case even though in her previous stint in the Office of the Solicitor General, she was part of the “Task Force Rebellion” that was assigned to work on the cases of political prisoners, including Mr. Sarmiento’s, in connection with the GPH-NDFP peace talks, obviously for the government side.

Let us summarize the grounds of a motion for reconsideration filed by Mr. Sarmiento’s defense lawyers against the guilty verdict.  First, the prosecution was unable to prove the alleged possession of the explosive by the accused as claimed by the arresting officers.  His bag was taken from him, he was blindfolded, forced into a van, brought to an undisclosed location where he was interrogated for 24 hours before he was brought to the Southern Police District regular jail. No physical inventory or photograph of the alleged fragmentation grenade was taken in the presence of the accused, his lawyer or any elective official immediately after his arrest.  The accused came to know about the charge of illegal possession of an explosive only upon his arraignment in court. The defense concludes that the existence of said explosive was not even proven by the prosecution much less that the accused was in possession of it except for the claim of the arresting officers.

Secondly, there is serious doubt as to the integrity of the “chain of custody” of the alleged grenade since the arresting officer, Police Senior Inspector Joseph Nandu, who testified that he seized the evidence from Mr. Sarmiento, did not mark the same.  PSI Nandu said he turned over the grenade to another policeman, a certain Sgt. Casida, for recording and marking but the latter was inexplicably not brought in to testify to the same.  Let us take note that a grenade, unlike a firearm, bears no serial number or unique marking that would distinguish it from any other grenade that law enforcement agencies have in their possession. Thus the prosecution was unable to establish that the evidence they brought to court was in fact the grenade that was allegedly confiscated from the accused.

Third, the judge blindly relied on the “presumption of regularity” in the police’s performance of their official duties and used this to trump the right of the accused to a “presumption of innocence”, a fundamental principle of both constitutional and criminal law.  Defense lawyers invoked the right of the accused to be acquitted given that the prosecution clearly failed to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The recent judgment on Mr. Sarmiento has serious, if not dire, implications both for the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations and for civil and political liberties in this country.

The wrongful conviction could not have taken place without the acquiescence, or more likely the go-signal of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) regardless of the unmistakable signal and consequent effect it would have on hardening the positions of the contending parties in the peace negotiations. 
Of course the buck stops at President BS Aquino’s doorstep.  Mr. Aquino shows his contempt for the GPF-NDFP peace talks and the peace process in general by allowing his minions to sabotage these with impunity and without regard for subsequent grievous implications.

In other words, the state’s punitive action against this particular political prisoner is placing another nail in the coffin on the GPH-NDFP peace talks, i.e. to any chance that the armed conflict can be resolved through peaceful means rather than through bloody counterinsurgency campaigns that have been victimizing civilian communities and unarmed activists alike and have been proven failures to boot.

But the manner in which this miscarriage of justice was carried out, by utilizing a martial law edict that was even rendered more repressive by an amending law in 2008; and worse, by upholding the way state security forces routinely plant evidence (a grenade or a handgun or even just parts of an explosive or firearm) in order for the courts to detain an accused on a non-bailable offense for years then eventually convict him, with the cooperation of a partial or compliant judge, based on a trumped-up case or cases –should set alarm bells ringing. 

These developments should concern not only civil libertarians, human rights defenders and peace advocates. It should be cause for worry, more so, action by social and political activists who are the ones most vulnerable to such injustice by state authorities.  Trade unionists and militant labor organizations; peasants engaged in life-and-death struggles for land reform; slum dwellers resisting violent demolition and inhumane resettlement projects; government employees working for better pay, working conditions and pro-people state policies; militant youth and students raging and fighting against an oppressive and exploitative system extinguishing their future; all who are pressed down by an exploitative and oppressive social system and a corrupt and repressive government apparatus – must take up the cudgels for someone like Eduardo Sarmiento.

His case is a test case once more as to what lengths, short of killing an activist and a freedom fighter, the state of the ruling elite can go to eliminate just opposition and to instill fear in a people pushed to fight back.  We should all take notice and take action not to let this injustice, seemingly against just one man but poised to strike at so many like him - like us - from reaching its full and horrible extent.  #

Published in Business World
3-4 January 2013


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