SC Chief backs efforts vs. impunity

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 26 Nov) – In a rare act as jurist, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has thrown full support behind mounting local and international efforts to fight impunity in the country.

Sereno made known her position about the issue in a landmark speech titled The Culture of Impunity and the Counter-Culture of Hope that she delivered before journalists and media leaders on Sunday (Nov. 23), which marked exactly five years since the Maguindanao Massacre happened.

“Like you, impunity is an issue that burdens me – it weighs heavily on me officially, as Chief Justice, and for a very long time has been a source of heartache for me personally,” Sereno told participants to the Journalism Asia Forum (JAF) that tackled “Media and Impunity.”

“No one is immune from accountability simply because he is powerful or because he is rich or both,” she further said.

The forum was convened by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) together with the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to highlight the problem of continuing attacks on the press in the country and the slow grind of justice for these cases.

The Philippines, the third most dangerous country worldwide to practice journalism, has become an international posterboy of impunity because of the Maguindanao Massacre that claimed 58 lives, 32 of whom were media workers – making it the worst single attack on the press.

As a global network of freedom of expression advocates, IFEX has set Nov. 23 of each year as International Day to End Impunity.

“Words of assurance even from the Chief Justice are not enough to assuage the hunger of our people for justice, much less be the soothing balm to heal broken and hurting hearts and lives. I am aware that at this point, my words are but a possible starting point, one among many platforms by which a national conversation on eradicating impunity for crimes can be launched and perhaps sustained,” Sereno said.

“What I offer is a public face to the Philippine judiciary’s sincere desire to be a genuine vessel of justice,” added Sereno, who is the second youngest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the first woman to hold the highest post in the judiciary.

Hesitant

Sereno admitted she was hesitant to speak before the forum “not because I am unconcerned about this issue but, on the contrary, I hesitated precisely because I am very concerned about this issue.”

“My duties as Chief Justice prevent me from freely expressing myself on matters that are still pending or might reasonably be pending before the various courts or before the Supreme Court,” she explained.

Sereno told the journalists that the “struggle to combat impunity” is “our common goal.”

“Personally, however, I also wanted to dispel the perception that those in government do not care about issues like these; I am part of government, and I care,” she added.

Sereno’s activism is reminiscent of retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno during whose time the High Court took landmark steps to address the issue of the rise in extra-judicial killings that victimize not just journalists but also activists.

In mid-2007, the Puno court convened a summit to discuss about ways to help solve the problem. This resulted to the promulgation by the Supreme Court of the writs of amparo and habeas data to enhance the legal instrument for protecting and enforcing human rights.

Just before his retirement from office in 2010, Puno entered into a joint declaration with the Departments of Justice and Interior and Local Government that provided for the creation of Justice Sector Coordinating Council which aims for an “effective and efficient administration of justice.”

Breakdown of governance

“Impunity represents a breakdown, in part or in whole, of governance. In its most recognizable form, it is the impossibility of enforcing accountability, in whatever form, against offenders by reason of the unavailability of existing proceedings and processes, means and methods to effect an effective and meaningful investigation, charge, arrest, trial, judgment, sentence or service of sentence,” Sereno stressed.

“Where an offender is unduly immunized from accountability through external conditions such as policy, politics, pecuniary interests, or simply bureaucratic inadequacies, then impunity has set in and the rule of law is diminished,” she added.

Sereno lamented the persistence of situations where court orders remain unserved.

“Impunity is assured not only by the failure of the courts to reach a judgment but even more fundamentally, the failure to even commence any action that would result in such a judgment.”

“One of our greatest limitations is that we do not have the capability to effect some of our own writs and processes… We are dependent on external agencies to enforce our orders, writs and processes,” she pointed out.

Sereno observed that “the prosecution of some cases involving journalists that have been filed in court have been delayed because the warrants of arrest issued by our judges are not being served or cannot be served, for one reason or another.”

She said that “in some of these cases, the pattern appears to be the same—should the case find its way to court, any writs, orders or processes are not served because the suspects have fled, or in specific cases, the offenses are attributed to local policemen.”

She cited the case involving the killing of Fernando Solijon, Dennis Cuesta, Philip Agustin, and Marlene Esparat, the suspects of which remain at large despite warrants of arrest having already been issued.

“This situation is unacceptable to me. The rule of law requires not only that processes that are integral to the court’s jurisdiction work but that they are also perceived to work,” Sereno said.

Such “failure or inability of law enforcement officers to ensure that warrants issued by the courts are served,” she worried, could “erode confidence in the system and force people to look elsewhere to seek justice.”

“When an offender enjoys a freedom that is no longer deserved because a warrant of arrest remains unserved for political, personal or pecuniary reasons, the rule of law is diminished and impunity prevails,” Sereno emphasized.

Speeding up justice

Sereno acknowledged the need to improve the pace of how the wheels of justice in the country grinds.

However, she also pointed to some inherent assumptions that contribute to the general public perception “that nothing is happening or that court proceedings take too long.”

“It is one of the judiciary’s burdens that we are not in a position to make things move as quickly as we would want because the judicial process involves the prosecution, both public and private, and the defense; and in every instance, the fundamental rights of the accused as well as the correlative rights of the State,” Sereno explained.

Each case demands from the courts a balancing of the specific interests implicated and, in each case, the courts must determine in what way justice may best be served,” she added.

“Our processes depend a great deal on good prosecutorial work and an equally good defense, both cooperating and not obstructing the processes of the court, in order that expeditious trial can be realized. And even if there is popular belief in the guilt of the accused, if the prosecution can only muster a weak case, we have to dismiss,” she further said.

Sereno cited that in the case of the Maguindanao Massacre, the Supreme Court “provided the trial judge with all possible legal resources to speed up the disposition of the case, mindful of the fact that at that time, it had already been four years since the killings.”

The December 10, 2013 guidelines issued by the Court en banc “apply only to this one case,” noted Sereno.

“You may appreciate that this is extraordinary because the Supreme Court has never issued such an expansive set of guidelines designed only for one case. The Guidelines embody the strong sentiment of the Supreme Court that the trial should proceed expeditiously by empowering the trial judge to dispose of all the incidents and to expeditiously arrive at a judgment, yet taking into consideration all the rights of the parties,” she emphasized.

Sereno also revealed that she has taken a personal interest on how the massacre case is proceeding.

“As Chief Justice, I am regularly updated on what is going on in the trial in People v. Ampatuan, et al. I keep track of what still needs to be done on the part of the Supreme Court or the Office of the Court Administrator in order that the goal of speedy trial may be met, while ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected,” Sereno said.

“I have also more than once, personally assured the judge in charge of the cases that the Guidelines that the Supreme Court had issued, especially the last one issued in December 2013 are meant to fully empower her to resolve the cases as expeditiously as possible without sacrificing the quality of the decision she will render while at all times ensuring that the accused are afforded due process,” Sereno added.

Sereno hoped these efforts by the Supreme Court “exercising its power in a way it has never done before… bring a speedy end to the long anguished wait” for justice in the massacre case.

Cooperation

Strengthening the rule of law, according to Sereno, requires, among others, “deep public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice, which would often require a heightened sense of vigilance.”

She asked that media play its role in heightening vigilance.

“By shining a light in the areas that a culture of impunity keeps dark, the media plays a crucial role in stopping impunity and ensuring accountability. On the other hand, the courts ensure that the media may shine a light, where and when needed, through its protection of crucial freedoms that ensure independence of the press and pluralism of thought.”

“Ironically, often, that light is trained on us. But that is a reality that I cannot ignore – the interdependent relationship between media and the judiciary may be, at times, uncomfortable, but it is necessary,” she stressed.

“We are fighting against a culture, a way of thinking, of seeing, and thus of acting or not acting. It is a culture that is ingrained and deeply rooted. It is a culture that started when people started to look the other way; a culture that thrived when people stopped caring; a culture that prevailed when people stopped hoping.”

“The only way to fight against a culture is to be a counter-culture – to write about truths when others are spreading lies; to encourage action when others are apathetic; to dare to hope when others have given up. This is our common cause, our shared burden, our one hope,” Sereno said. (Ryan D. Rosauro / MindaNews)

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