MANILA, Philippines — Two more activists have been acquitted by a local court on charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives after government authorities failed to prove that they owned the firearms, ammunition, and explosives supposedly seized during the implementation of a search warrant in their house in 2019.
In a 13-page decision, Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 19 Presiding Judge Marlo Magdoza-Malagar acquitted activist Cora Agovida and urban poor organizer Michael Bartolome.
“The prosecution has failed beyond reasonable doubt Bartolome and Agovida’s ownership or possession of the firearms, ammunition, and explosives and their lack of license to own or possess them. Thus, it failed to overcome the presumption of innocence which the accused enjoyed. The Court is thus constrained to render a judgment of acquittal,” the court.
The two were arrested in October 2019 on the basis of the search warrant issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert. Police seized two pistols, ammunition, and a grenade from their apartment in Paco, Manila.
However, during the trial, the court found inconsistencies in the testimonies of members of the raiding team and prosecution witnesses about how the search was conducted, where the weapons were recovered, and the chain of custody in the handling of evidence seized.
The court said none of the police-SWAT members who were part of the implementation of the search warrant were identified, much less did they testify before the court during the trial raising the possibility that the evidence was planted by the police.
“The accused have been insistent in their claim that the evidence against them was planted particularly between the time the SWAT entered the room and the arrival of the second group of policemen. The possibility of said claim was evident from the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses themselves,” the court said.
The court also noted that those who took part in the raid failed to give specific details such as whether the house was gated or not, the description of the residential area, where the firearm and explosive were found.
The court added that the police who conducted the surveillance operations do not even know who applied for the search warrant.
“It is a matter of judicial notice that the application and implementation of search warrants are susceptible to abuse. A number had even resulted in death under disputed circumstances. that these judicial orders had been dubbed by some as death warrants,” the court added.
The search warrants issued for Agovinda and Bartolome were among those issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert.
The search warrants issued by the Quezon City court led to the arrests of dozens of activists in 2019, including Reina Mae Nasino, whose plight resulted in local and international criticism after she gave birth to a daughter in detention. Her daughter succumbed to illness months after being born.
According to human rights group Karapatan, of the 76 arrested, based on Villavert’s search warrant, only 22 remained in detention while two are on bail.
The rest were freed after the charges against them were dismissed.
‘This Manila court’s acquittal of Agovida and Bartolome followed the Quezon City court’s acquittal of Esterlita Suaybaguio of similar trumped-up charges in September this year. These court decisions reaffirm the assertions of those unjustly arrested and detained that there were violations of their rights to due process, that evidence was planted against them, and that the charges are all made up by a regime that desperately seeks to silence activists and human rights defenders,’ Karapatan said.
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