[Statement] PHILIPPINES: Prosecutor dismissed charges of torture by invoking acts of torture -AHRC

PHILIPPINES: Prosecutor dismissed charges of torture by invoking acts of torture

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has learned that a city prosecutor in San Fernando, Pampanga, had dismissed the complaint of torture by five torture victims against a police colonel and other policemen due to “insufficiency of evidence” because their identification of the accused were ‘dubious’ since they were ‘blindfolded’. The five complainants filed a petition for review at the Department of Justice (DoJ) asking them to reverse the prosecutor’s recommendation. This is still pending. Under the Philippine‘s prosecution system, it is the secretary of the DoJ who has final decision on whether or not criminal charges would be filed in court for trial.

Asian Human Rights CommissionThe complainants, Lenin Salas, Jose Gomez, Jerry Simbulan, Rodwin Tala and Daniel Navarro, filed charges on August 9, 2010, for violation of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 against P/Supt. Madzgani Mukaram, commander of the Provincial Public Safety Office (formerly Regional Mobile Group) and other police officers whose names could not be immediately identified at the time. They were arrested and detained for their alleged involvement with the Marxist Leninist Party of the Philippines, an illegal armed group. Read details here: Story 1: “There are no human rights for us”. They filed complaint of torture while in detention six days after their arrest.
After the overly delayed and lengthy process of, for example, the submission of affidavits, appeals and petitions (including demands by the accused to expunge from record the complaint of torture), prosecutor Maria Gracella Dela Paz – Malapit, concluded in her resolution dated July 21, 2011 that “the instant complaint for violation of Rep. Act No. 9745 (Anti-torture Act of 2009) against P/Supt. Madzgani Mukaram be DISMISSED for insufficiency of evidence”.

However, while Prosecutor Malapit admitted that “there exists a probability that they (victims) were tortured”, she nevertheless dismissed the complaint invoking that the facial identification of the accused was dubious because they “did not have the opportunity to see him considering that they were blindfolded”. In justifying her argument she invoked the Supreme Court (SC) ruling on People vs. Acosta1, by merely copying the jurisprudence that the “identification of the offender is crucial in every criminal prosecution”.

In People vs. Acosta, the jurisprudence was applied in the context in which the convicted person, Jesus Acosta, challenged the identification of Freddie Osmillo, the principal witness of the prosecution of him as the person who shot dead Rafael Villavicencio, Jr. in April 28, 1980. Here, the SC weighs the defence of alibi of the accused as against the positive identification of the witness. The SC held to affirm the conviction of Acosta with finality in determining his guilt for murder.

However, in her resolution Prosecutor Malapit applied the doctrine of ‘positive identification’ in exonerating the accused P/Supt. Mukaram and eventually also the other accused police officers from criminal liability for torture. In Acosta’s case, it was after the conclusion of a criminal trial, but in this complaint of torture it was dismissed invoking exactly the same doctrine even though it was not a criminal trial, but rather the process of determination of probable cause. Her application of the doctrine of positive identification in dismissing the complaint of torture, therefore, is completely taken out of context. Here, she pre-empted and usurped the authority that should have been solely for the court to decide: positive identification to determine the innocence or guilt.

In her resolution Prosecutor Malapit argued:

“Like Salas, the identification made by Tala, Simbulan and Navarro seemed to be dubious. It is unusual that they should be able to identify the respondent talking to them when they did not have the opportunity to see him considering that they were blindfolded. Uncertainty thus exists as to the veracity of respondent’s identification as it is possible that owners of the voices they heard belong to that of other persons who inflicted physical harm on them⦔

If this reasoning is not corrected, the exoneration of the accused by invoking  “blindfolding“, which itself  defined as act of torture under section 4 of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009, renders any sort of remedy inapplicable and meaningless. Here, P/Supt. Mukaram and other policemen had been exonerated from criminal liability for the crime of torture for reasons because the perpetrators had blindfolded the victims they were torturing. This type of reasoning rather emboldens perpetrators to create more sophisticated form of torture without them being identified and assured of impunity.

Prosecutor Malapit, however, admitted the existence of probable cause:

“In here, with the presence of the above-stated injuries of the complainants, there exists a probability that they were tortured. It bears to emphasize that physical evidence is that mute but eloquent manifestations of truth which rate high in our hierarchy of trustworthy evidence (People vs. Vasquez, 280 SCRA 160)”

Anyone who studies law, reading this argument would say these are contradiction in substance as to what the role of prosecutors should be in criminal cases. In the Philippines legal system, the prosecutor’s role is to determine ‘probable cause’, meaning a reasonable ground or circumstances that demonstrate a crime had probably been committed. None of the parties challenged the existence of probable cause. It is not within the prosecutor’s authority to make judgement on whether or not the identity of the person who is accused of committing crime as charge is actually the very person who had probably committed the crime. This principle explains the practice of using John Does and Jane Does, which denotes the identities of persons that are yet to be identified, in the criminal complaint. Therefore, the authority that prosecutor Malapit had taken to herself is in effect, that of the court.

Here, in dismissing the torture complaint, Prosecutor Malapit arbitrarily assumed the authority and power of the court. By deciding this matter to herself, beyond her obligations on determining probable cause, she disregarded the role of the court in determining the matter within their authority. Thus, the questions as to identities of the accused involved in torture, the merits of the case and determination of guilt or innocence, which are supposed to be heard in proper trial, were denied effectively from the court because the case did not reach their jurisdiction.

Freedom from torture is an absolute right. It is a serious crime as it is attributed, not only to an individual criminal act of a person, but a person acting on behalf of the State. Therefore, in applying doctrines and jurisprudence, more caution must be observed. They cannot be interpreted narrowly by arguing and invoking analogous to ordinary case-laws and jurisprudence. In fact, the Resolutions of the Prosecutors are not court decisions, where the guilt or innocence of the accused are determined, but rather contains details on existence of ‘probable cause’. But the manner how Prosecutor Malapit argued in her Resolution it has become in form effectively a court decision following a criminal trial.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is shocked, but not surprise as to how prosecutor who had legal obligations to investigate complaints of torture, understands and interprets how the probability of the crime of torture under the Anti-torture Act of 2009, are committed for them to proceed in recommending prosecution of case in court. In the Philippine legal system, the duty of the prosecutor in determining the existence of ‘probable cause’ is very crucial in criminal prosecution. They are ‘bottle neck’ on whether or not a case proceeds in court for trial.

The AHRC therefore urges Department of Justice (DoJ) to resolve without delay the complainants’ petition for review asking for the reversal of the city prosecutor’s decision in their favour so as to proceed with the prosecution of the case in court. If this wrong is not corrected, it will deny any possibilities of remedies and redress for victims of torture. In prosecution of cases of torture, where public officers are acting within the authority and the power of the State, utmost caution must be observed.

[1] People v. Acosta, G.R. No. 70133, July 2, 1990, 187 SCRA 39, full text: http://www.chanrobles.com/scdecisions/jurisprudence1990/jul1990/gr\_70133\_1990.php
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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March 15, 2012

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