PHILIPPINES: State power does not respect or protect our liberty

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”-  Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables

I was observing a trial in a crowded court room in Manila when, in a middle of packed bench, a public lawyer drew the attention of his client seated at the back with another accused wearing prison uniforms. He said:

Photo: Interior of a court room in Manila, the Philippines.

Tayo ka! Anong pangalan mo? Babasahin na sentensiya mo. (Stand up! What is your name? Listen, the court will read the judgment.”

Shortly after, a court staff stood up, briefly read his case in English, and without elaborating, concluded, “The court finds you not guilty.” In few words the faith of a young man, who spent over four years in jail for charges of robbery, was decided. He regained his liberty. But this young man showed no reaction, there was no smile on his face.

He only smiled and was visibly elated only after he heard the court staff told him in Filipino:

Oh, naintindihan mo ba ang sentensiya? Wala ka daw kasalanan. Malaya ka na (Oh, did you understand the decision? You are not guilty. You are free now).”

In my adult life, from my days as student activist until I became a professional journalist, I have observed court trials, but what I witnessed that day was deeply profound. It says a lot about our own society. It gives rise to questions on what protection an individual has from State’s exercise of power, and its obligations to respect and protect our liberty.

It was clear that the young man could not speak the language of the court: English. The question asked by his lawyer: “What is your name?” who should have known him presuming he had served his clients for many years, demonstrates that he barely knew him. His client was just one of the many accused he was appearing for in court that day.

What I witnessed was not a scene in a movie adaptation of Les Misérables, a French novel set in 1862. It was present day Manila, the heart of the Philippines.

The young man lost four years of his life in prison. What he had endured was no different to millions of Filipinos who are in police stations, jails and reformatory centers scatted all over the country. These detainees are waiting either for conclusion of trial or completion of their prison terms. While the young man was found ‘not guilty,’ others accused in another case who appeared in court were convicted.

After this young man was acquitted, as I stood by the bench inside the court, my curious eyes kept on looking at him. I don’t know him. I smiled and nodded at him from a distance across the court room to show to him how happy I was for him. As he smiled back at me I could see the joy on his face. Why and how happy he was made me understand in a more profound way what is it to be free: priceless.

But our freedom, our liberty, and our priceless possessions, have no adequate protection from the excesses, abuse and neglect, of the government in its exercise of power. What the young man experienced is what millions of the Filipinos—men, women and children—have suffered. Those who suffer are not only those in jails inside the country; there are even Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong whose loved ones are in prisons back home.

In our Philippine society, we condemn and fear the detainees, and not the system of justice that incarcerated them. We condemn individuals, not our State who has enormous power over us to deprive us of our liberty. We tend to assume that justice serves its course and it is being doing the right way. We fear not only prisoners, but also the prisons. Our courts are no longer a place where the poor can seek remedy and relief, but only for the rich. In our courts it is the poor, not the rich, whose liberties are deprived.

We demanded too much about codifying our rights in our laws—they must be written, but we don’t pay attention in understanding what our justice institutions have now become, and how they ought to function. Our rights in the Constitution and laws: to be presumed innocent, to have to have speedy trial, free from torture, etc. remains on paper. They either no longer protect our fundamental freedoms or they are fast degenerating.

Stories of policemen torturing suspects to extract confessions, planting evidence in illegal searches and raids; and the prosecutor’s evidence taken by illegal means by police are used in court trials, are all too common. It is now the way of life. We live in a social condition as described in Les Misérables in our present day.

When I appeared in court trial, my initial plan was to observe and comment on the trial of an activist, who is detained and prosecuted on evidence obtained by torture. However, what gives me profound understanding as to how the system of justice in our country operates, was how these nameless and ordinary Filipinos have to struggle to regain their liberty.

In fact, I thought the situation of the activist whose trial I had come to observe, was better off than the other detainees I had seen in court. He has legal counsel, many foreign observers were present. The court had to read quick judgments, so it could proceed to the trial of the activist. Other accused were quickly disposed off to make room for foreign observers in court.

In conclusion, while we value our freedom we have yet to understand whether or not our system of justice is founded on, operating and functioning with the idea of protecting our liberty at its core.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-025-2014
Countries : Philippines,
Campaigns : No Torture
Issues : Child rights, Judicial system, Migrant workers, Rule of law, Torture,