Davao court suspends proceedings of cyber libel cases vs Walden Bello

Walden Bello (wearing glasses), with lawyer Luke Espiritu, files his counter-affidavit against the cyber libel case at the Hall of Justice in Davao City on 20 April 2022. MindaNews file photo by MANMAN DEJETO

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 19 August) – The court in Davao City handling the libel cases against Walden Bello on Thursday granted his motion to suspend proceedings pending his petition for a review of his indictment before the Department of Justice.

Bello, a candidate for vice president in the May 9, 2022 elections, is facing two counts of cyber libel filed by Jefry Tupas, a former information officer of the city government.

The Regional Trial Court in Davao granted Bello’s motion to suspend proceedings, and reset the arraignment and pre-trial from September 8 to October 27.

Bello was arrested in Quezon City last August 8 on the strength of the warrant of arrest issued by Judge Retrina Espe of Regional Trial Court Branch 10. He was released the following day after posting bail of P48,000 for each count.

Lawyer Luke Espiritu, Bello’s lead counsel, told reporters in an interview Thursday that his client is determined to prove his innocence.

But he added Bellos’s legal team would prepare for trial in case Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla would not act on the petition for review they filed last July 29 or sustain his indictment before the City Prosecutors’ Office.
 
Espiritu added that the filing of charges against Bello, a staunch government critic who was chairperson of the Laban ng Masa, “merely fueled his fighting spirit to win the struggle for democracy.”
 
“Professor Walden is very much into the fight. It has never affected him negatively, in a sense that it would not dampen his fighting spirit,” he said.
 
He added the legal team would exhaust all available remedies, including a petition before the Supreme Court to dismiss outright the case on grounds of “political persecution.”

Citing a jurisprudence, Espiritu said the Court previously held that “any attempt at persecution using prosecution” could be subject of a permanent injunction.
 
“The general rule is, an injunction cannot be issued to stop prosecuting certain alleged offenders. But, as an exception to that rule, if the Supreme Court finds that the prosecution is a form of persecution to silence political opponents, then the judiciary can step in in order to issue a permanent injunction to stop the prosecution,” he said.
 
He said they are willing to go to trial if these remedies would not work in their favor but added they would ask the Supreme Court to change the venue of the trial to a more neutral place, considering the political influence of the Duterte family in Davao.
 
“If all of these measures will not work out, we’re hellbent on preparing for trial, and one of the defenses that we are exploring is to prove the truth, because truth is a defense in libel,” he said.
 
Lawyer Danilo Balucos said Davao could not be a neutral place considering the local council declared Bello a “persona non grata.”
 
“We have to remember that Walden has been declared persona non grata by Sanggunian Panlungsod of Davao. It’s not a mere perception because there was an official act of the legislative body declaring Walden as persona non grata. That in itself says that Davao City could not be a neutral venue,” he said.
 
Espiritu said the trial should be done in a venue “where there is no Duterte dynasty where courts can at least act and decide with relative freedom.”
 
“The SC should recognize that and transfer the venue to a more neutral place because the court may want to be neutral but the political context in the place cannot but affect the hearing of a particular case,” he said.
 
Last June, the Office of the City Prosecutor here found “defamatory” Bello’s statement, delivered during a live interview and later posted on his verified Facebook account last March 1, 2022, alleging that Tupas and her friends were “snorting P1.5 million worth of drugs” and describing him as a “drug dealer.”
 
Bello’s post that led to his indictment read in part: “Mayor Duterte’s Press Information Officer, Jefry Tupas, was nabbed at a beach party where she and her friends were snorting 1.5 million pesos worth of drugs on November 6, 2021. Now, the Mayor’s excuse that she did not know that she was sheltering a drug dealer does not wash, it is not credible.”
 
Espiritu maintained that there was no basis for Bello’s indictment.
 
He said the drug raid was an “established fact” and had been widely reported by news outlets on which Bello based his “opinion.”
 
He said the post on social media was intended to challenge then candidate and now Vice President Sara Duterte to attend the debate and address the issues posed by her political opponent.
 
“It is matter of interest for the general public to know why is it a candidate at the time for vice president would be involved or be dragged in this issue because no matter what we do they cannot deny the connection between Jefry Tupas and Sara Duterte,” he said.
 
In a statement last August 9, Duterte denied any involvement in the two counts of cyber libel that were filed against Bello who accused her of being the “force behind this brazen effort” to subvert his freedom of speech.
 
“Instead of deflecting blame, playing the victim of an imaginary case of political persecution, and dragging me into his legal woes, I suggest that Mr. Bello be reminded of the fact that a civilized and democratic society does not respect hubris,” she said.
 
Espiritu said public officials must not be “onion-skinned.”
 
“Can you imagine public officials asserting that they experience moral shock, mental anxiety and emotional distress? The SC is clear that you cannot be too onion-skinned; it was your choice to become a public official. You must understand your own conduct becomes a matter of public interest and even curiosity that you will be subjected to criticisms,” he said. (Antonio L. Colina IV/MindaNews)