Negros Occidental activist latest to win lawsuit against ‘warrant factory’

Negros Occidental activist latest to win lawsuit against ‘warrant factory’

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Human rights group Karapatan says arrest warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Jocelyn Burgos-Villavert led to the arrest and filing of criminal charges against 76 activists between 2018 and 2020.

MANILA, Philippines — A Negros Occidental activist is the latest to win a case stemming from what one judge called a “warrant factory.”

Imelda Sultan, a local leader of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) in Escalante City, Negros Occidental province, was acquitted on July 10 of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, human rights group Karapatan said Thursday, July 11.

Sultan was arrested on November 1, 2019, for illegal possession of firearms, but human rights groups said the weapons had been planted there.

Also acquitted of the same charge was Sultan’s colleague Lindy Perocho. She was arrested along with Sultan in 2019 based on a warrant issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Jocelyn Burgos-Villavert.

“They have endured five years of unjust detention. Their acquittal is further evidence of the flimsy and inconsistent motives on which Judge Villavert issued search warrants against activists,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan.

Sultan and Perocho are the latest activists to win a victory against the arrest warrants issued by Villavert.

Rappler’s tracking showed that at least 32 activists, including the two Negros Occidental activists, were released after getting their cases dismissed. According to Karapatan, the arrest warrants issued by Villavert led to the arrest and filing of complaints against 76 activists between 2018 and 2020.

Most of the cases were dismissed after several courts, including the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, quashed the arrest warrants. Although several activists have already been released, some remain in detention.

“Karapatan will continue to campaign and demand the release of other activists who are still languishing in jail due to Judge Villavert’s illegal search warrants… These are Vicente Ladlad, couple Alberto and Virginia Villamor, Joel Demate, Mark Ryan Cruz and Jaymie Gregorio Jr. who are detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City; and Romina Astudillo who is detained at Camp Karingal in Quezon City,” Palabay said.

“Mandate factory”

Activist groups have described Villavert as a “warrant factory” for issuing multiple warrants against activists. She has even issued warrants that were executed in other parts of the country based on Supreme Court Circular AM No. 03-8-02-SC, which empowers executive judges of the Manila and Quezon City regional courts to issue search warrants that can be issued outside their jurisdictions, but under certain procedures.

Section 12, Chapter V of the circular states that the executive judges of Manila and Quezon City have the power to act on requests from the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation, but that the requests “must be personally approved by the heads of these agencies.”

Villavert is the judge who issued arrest warrants for activists Reina Mae Nasino, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and Ram Carlo Bautista and Alma Moran. Like Sultan and Perocho, the three were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, but they said police planted the evidence.

Nasino gave birth to her daughter, Baby River, while she was in prison and at the height of the pandemic. While Nasino was in custody, Baby River died shortly after her mother filed for bail. Nasino was later released after being granted bail and the courts quashed the warrants issued by Villavert. Last April, the Supreme Court upheld the quashing of Nasino’s warrant, followed by a Manila court ruling clearing them of all charges against them.

Besides Nasino, journalist Lady Ann Salem and union activist Rodrigo Esparrago were also arrested based on a warrant issued by Villavert. A Mandaluyong court later acquitted both charges, saying the search warrant used to arrest them was void. The Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court’s decision.

In 2021, the Supreme Court removed the power of judges in Quezon City and Manila to issue arrest warrants outside their jurisdiction. For years, activists have been calling on the Supreme Court to investigate judges like Villavert for alleged errors in the arrest warrants they have issued.

Activists oppose 'mandate factory' judge's candidacy for associate judge

Villavert is now running for an associate justice seat in Sandiganbayan and CA, and activists have opposed his candidacy. Rappler.com