It is a rarity that the Supreme Court does something to uphold fundamental rights, even in the most unexpected way. But when it does so, those at the losing end of justice are often sidelined–the ones who have languished in jail without trial, poor defendants and political prisoners.
On January 17, the court’s first division ruled that Gigi Reyes, the former chief-of-staff of former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, must be released after nearly nine years of detention arising from charges of plunder connected to the Pork Barrel scandal. According to the court, Reyes may avail of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which allowed the detainee to challenge her imprisonment and eventually petition for her temporary release. In this particular situation, the legal remedy was pursued as Reyes has been detained for too long without meaningful progress in her case.
The court ruled–for the first time–that the writ may be used to free a detainee even with a valid court decision ordering imprisonment. This decision was a flexing of judicial prowess, uncommonly seen in an institution that has prided itself on being passive and opaque. Because the decision is now good law, the case could free similar plunder defendants. However, a closer and more clever reading of the decision could be used by other imprisoned–including those who are wrongly detained.
At the outset, though, the court clarified that their decision is “generally not available to a person whose liberty is under … process issued by a court.” Nonetheless, the court added, once the fundamental right to speedy trial is violated, habeas corpus may be availed for temporary liberty.
Habeas corpus writs are commonly availed by political prisoners seeking to be released from their illegal detention. The writ was frequently used, albeit with little success, by the opposition figures imprisoned by the Marcos Sr. regime. In 2021, the writ was invoked by Joanna Abua, the wife of missing peasant organizer Steve Abua, to compel military camps to surface her husband. A habeas corpus petition may only apply in cases of illegal detention, not disappearance, the Court of Appeals ruled.
But Reyes is neither a political prisoner nor an activist. Unlike Reyes, whose victory has been concocted by no less than the once-Marcosian solicitor general Estelito Mendoza, political prisoners have long even called the court to take action on worsening conditions inside jails, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their pleas, however, have fallen on deaf ears.
Mendoza’s wicked lawyering–for better or worse–has opened another avenue for political prisoners to challenge their imprisonment, often due to trumped-up nonbailable charges. Before the Reyes petition, the habeas corpus remedy is no longer available once a detained individual has been formally charged, a consequence of yet another Martial Law-era jurisprudence in the landmark case on Ilagan v. Enrile.
The court has not explicitly overruled Ilagan, but Reyes’s case has reinvigorated the weakened writ of habeas corpus. For the court, if the right to a speedy trial has been trampled upon, then the writ may be used to temporarily release the detainee.
Political prisoners, in particular, have been on the receiving end of the state’s double whammy: arrested on baseless charges, and victimized to prolonged detention due to the inordinate and deliberate delays in sham trials. This February, three of the five Tacloban-based activists marked their third year in jail. It was only last January 23 that the three faced trial for a dubious charge of terrorist financing since their Gestapo-style arrest in February 2020. Even Former Sen. Leila de Lima, who marked six years in detention this month, has been unable to find a final resolution on her case due to various trial postponements.
President Ephraim Cortez of National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers told Rappler that the Reyes decision would find an upright purpose if the courts will allow its application to “nameless and faceless victims who have been languishing in jails under questionable circumstances.”
The Reyes case precisely applies to political prisoners as, apart from their questionable arrest, state forces are keen on detaining them for as long as they can, which violates the former’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. Protracted judicial processes are fatal, as demonstrated in the case of Reina Mae Nasino and the late Baby River, the death of peasant leader Joseph Canlas inside detention, and the passing of 67-year-old peasant organizer Antonio Molina due to cardiac arrest after more than two years behind bars.
There is no need to waste years of life from unjust detention if the state respects the most fundamental human right to speech and expression in the first place. But in a government where the slightest hint of criticality and dissent is vilified, all kinds of protective measures–legal or otherwise–are essential.
A singular case does not produce a solid precedent, but it is a start. Plunderers and political prisoners are imprisoned for opposing reasons, and there is no reason for the state to deny prisoners of conscience liberty when it does so to a multimillion thief. ●
Feb 10, 2024
Wala akong hangad na angkinin ang oras mo. Bakit ko naman gagawin iyon, kung sa mga kwento mo tungkol sa iyong pagkilos ay nakikita kitang masaya, nabubuhayan ng loob na magpatuloy at magpakahusay.
Feb 10, 2024
Bago maiahon ni Jimenez sa nais na katanyagan ang UP, esensyal na masigurong nakalapat muna ang kanyang pamumuno sa pagtugon sa kagyat na kahingian ng mga sektor ng pamantasan.