Young Philippine Lawyers Arrested Today for “Obstruction of Justice” in the Philippines’ Drug War

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I’ve been up since 3 am here in Notre Dame making urgent calls and preparing petitions. I was contacted by my law partner in Manila early this morning, alerting me that three of our 16 year-family law firm’s young lawyers  – Attorney Jan Vincent Sambrano Soliven (34, and currently a law professor at the Lyceum of the Philippines College of Law), Attorney Lenie Rocel Elmido Rocha (25, who just passed the bar exam last year and was a former National Jessup Champion for the Philippines and competed in the International Rounds in Washington DC), and Attorney Romulo Bernard Bustamante Alarkon (33, and who just passed the bar exam this year) – were suddenly arrested earlier today in Makati City, Metro Manila, while they were monitoring the police’s implementation of a search warrant on the premises of a famous arts Makati City bar that the police have dubbed a “drug den”. They identified themselves as legal counsels for the owner – my Manila law firm was engaged as counsel by the owner (foreign national) of the Times bar, after the Makati City police made the raid last Saturday. Because two cabinets were locked and could not be opened, the police got a search warrant to inspect the cabinets.  Our client asked the firm to send lawyers to monitor and watch the search of those two cabinets to safeguard against any planting of evidence or theft.  Standard procedure.  The police opened the cabinets, took their inventory, and then turned to my three young lawyers and said they had no authority to be there. My lawyers respectfully said they were legal counsels of the owner and were just sent by the firm to take notes and photograph the opening of the cabinets.  But instead, one of the police team members thought they were being “arrogant” and immediately arrested them on a charge of “obstruction of justice” (punishable with minimum 6 months imprisonment, maximum 6 years imprisonment).  The police did not explain why, and how, the passive and quiet acts of note-taking and phone camera photography of cabinets being opened amounted to an “obstruction of justice” under the Philippines’ Presidential Decree No. 1829:

“(a) preventing witnesses from testifying in any criminal proceeding or from reporting the commission of any offense or the identity of any offender/s by means of bribery, misrepresentation, deceit, intimidation, force or threats;

(b) altering, destroying, suppressing or concealing any paper, record, document, or object, with intent to impair its verity, authenticity, legibility, availability, or admissibility as evidence in any investigation of or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or to be used in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(c) harboring or concealing, or facilitating the escape of, any person he knows, or has reasonable ground to believe or suspect, has committed any offense under existing penal laws in order to prevent his arrest prosecution and conviction;

(d) publicly using a fictitious name for the purpose of concealing a crime, evading prosecution or the execution of a judgment, or concealing his true name and other personal circumstances for the same purpose or purposes;

(e) delaying the prosecution of criminal cases by obstructing the service of process or court orders or disturbing proceedings in the fiscal’s offices, in Tanodbayan, or in the courts;

(f) making, presenting or using any record, document, paper or object with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(g) soliciting, accepting, or agreeing to accept any benefit in consideration of abstaining from, discounting, or impeding the prosecution of a criminal offender;

(h) threatening directly or indirectly another with the infliction of any wrong upon his person, honor or property or that of any immediate member or members of his family in order to prevent such person from appearing in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or imposing a condition, whether lawful or unlawful, in order to prevent a person from appearing in the investigation of or in official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(i) giving of false or fabricated information to mislead or prevent the law enforcement agencies from apprehending the offender or from protecting the life or property of the victim; or fabricating information from the data gathered in confidence by investigating authorities for purposes of background information and not for publication and publishing or disseminating the same to mislead the investigator or to the court.”

To our surprise, for four hours, we were unable to reach our young lawyers when they were taken because they were not permitted to make any calls to counsel or their families, and neither were they informed of what the charge was against them but instead they were intimidated and verbally harassed.  When I and the law firm in Manila finally got to speak with them, they were already being hauled for medical inquest, and then being moved to the Makati City Police Station to spend the night in jail.  Because we could not find them and did not learn of the arrest until hours afterwards, we were unable to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus because the Makati City regional trial courts are closed.  As of this writing, it is already 8.30 pm in the evening, and my three young lawyers are detained in the Makati City Police Station.

While my family’s law firm on the ground will certainly file all necessary petitions in Philippine courts and elsewhere, I narrate the circumstances above because it is a firsthand account witnessing to a demonstrated potential for abuse in the Philippines’ anti-drug operations.  The Philippines is a long-time party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has repeatedly upheld the ICCPR as part of the law of the land under Article II, Section 2, of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.  Article 9 of the ICCPR make it clear that arbitrary arrest and detention are anathema to every human being’s civil and political rights:

“Article 9.

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

5. Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.”

Much has been written about the thousands of extrajudicial killings cases in the Philippines – and, as we did in 2005 when then Chief Justice Puno convened all of us in academia, the bar, and the courts to come up with the new human rights remedies on the writs of amparo and habeas data – many of us today are quietly working pro bono to pursue domestic remedies and justice before Philippine courts for victims’ families.  But this is the first instance I have ever heard of since the start of the Philippines’ drug war – one where the government has repeatedly defended the “necessity”, “proportionality”, and “legality” of its operations publicly and internationally – that the police have started going after the lawyers directly, using “obstruction of justice” as their trump card. As of this writing, the police have not shown any report or evidence of what amounts to “obstruction of justice” from the note-taking and banal photography that those three young lawyers did.

It is now nearly 9 pm in Manila (and 9 am in Notre Dame), and as I and my colleagues race to file the necessary court petitions and alert the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (I have just contacted President Abdiel Dan Fajardo), I cannot help but wonder what Asian Society of International Law President and Presidential Legal Adviser on Human Rights Secretary Harry Roque – my former law professor at UP Law and beloved coach when my team won the Jean Pictet International Humanitarian Law competition in 2004 at Mejannes-le-Clap, France – will say to this course of events on the ground.  Attorneys Soliven, Rocha, and Alarkon are young, idealistic, honorable, and patriotic lawyers – and none of them ever imagined that *this* is now what the “rule of law” looks like in the Philippines.  I’ve witnessed and borne my share of detention and law enforcement abuse in another country, so tonight I’m telling them to clutch hard inside, and stand by due process and the rule of law.  We are working hard to get them out as soon as possible.

*Update as of 18 August 2018:  The young lawyers were released late Friday evening and are in recovery. Thankful that this matter has moved to the judicial process and out of being incommunicado in illegal detention.  No further statements from us here following the sub juice rule for pending cases.  The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) Lawyers, many other organizations and volunteer lawyers have now taken up this matter at many levels.

*Update as of 28 February 2019:  The Makati City Prosecutor has dismissed all the complaints filed by the police against the lawyers. Resolution and report here.

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Kriangsak Kittichaisaree says

August 17, 2018

Hope this is an isolated case of over-zealous performance of duty by a few law enforcement officers that can be challenged constitutionally.

Sandy Sesdoyro says

August 17, 2018

dzMM Teleradyo, in its report yesterday of the incident, was apparently biased in its broadcast to confirm guilt by not using the word alleged, showing footages of drug and weed sachets already laid out on a table supposedly from the vaults, and making no mention of the lawyers being arrested. Very irresponsible reporting.

Red says

August 17, 2018

Please update us with the cases to be filed against the policemen (administrative cases, arbitrary detention, illegal arrest, abuse of authority, delay in delivery of detained persons to proper judicial authorities, abuse in the service of warrant of arrest, grave coercion, among others) so we can be updated and ensure the policemen will be punished for this abuse against these lawyers.

We want to make this an example to all police officers of how we lawyers exercise our legal rights.

Rico says

August 17, 2018

The “drug war” certainly does not allow illegalities in the procedure of any raids, one might look into an angle that there are certain personal motives, I.e. business rivalry, refusal to give protection money, etc that might involve the authorities,. Hence the potential of using the Drug war” as a jump board for abuse is real. More so in the “republic” of makati.