PHILIPPINES: ‘Morong 43’ case–exposes a prosecution system directly under political control 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) welcomes with reservations President Benigno Aquino III’s order to withdraw the charges against 43 health workers, collectively known as ‘Morong 43′, as reported today. We strongly believe, based on the documents and information that we have also obtained, that they should have not been arrested, detained, and forced to endure trial on deeply legally flawed charges in the first instance.

The case of the Morong 43 is no different to numerous cases of prosecution of fabricated charges that are mostly political in nature. However, the number of people tortured and falsely charged; the background of their work in this case–volunteer doctors, nurses and grassroots community health workers– exposes the ugly reality of the prosecution of cases without regard to legality and due process, nothing else.

The victims owe nothing to President Aquino, who used his executive power to withdraw the charges or the Department of Justice, to whom he had issued his order. It is rather the President and the DoJ that owe explanations to the 43 victims, their families and the Filipino people, as to how on earth deeply flawed and procedurally defective charges can be pursued in courts. The victims’ rights were violated, not only by the police and the military, but also by the prosecution and the judiciary for having the case admitted for trial.

Why did the National Prosecution Service (NPS), under the direct control of the DoJ not perform its legal obligation? It is the responsibility of the NPS to examine the legality of charges before they can be filed in court. They have the obligation to weigh the evidence of any case to determine whether or not the crime alleged had ‘probably been committed’ as the basis of its prosecution; however, as already shown they did not do so. The DoJ’s review on the case found procedural and legal flaws in the process of filing the case. It was the prosecution service, who is supposed to prosecute violations of penal laws, who commit the violations, by allowing the prosecution of fabricated charges.

When the case of the Morong 43 was filed in court, since the prosecution service had legal authority in prosecuting cases in court, the latter took jurisdiction of the case for trial ignoring the questions as to its legality and the procedural flaws. The court could have corrected this had it exercised its authority to ‘summarily dismiss’ the case for being legally and procedurally flawed; however, again, like the prosecution service, they did not do so. When the case was challenged before the Court of Appeal (CA), who also had the power to initiate judicial review, they invoked a flawed decision promulgated during Martial rule that allows trial of cases without any regard to questions of legality and due process. They ruled that the victims’ rights have not been violated because questions as to legality and procedure could be addressed during trial–therefore allowing the trial of a fabricated case.

The process the victims had undergone by having been illegally arrested, detained and tortured by the police and the military; laid with fabricated charges by the DoJ prosecutors; and the court’s ruling to allow the trial of this fabricated case, illustrates how highly sophisticated violations of rights are committed. The system procedurally institutionalises these violations. They are violations of rights that are perpetrated from within and by the government’s institution of justice.

President Aquino’s claims, as quoted by the media that: “As a government that is committed to the rule of law and the rights of man this (Morong 43) case cannot stand”. At the same time he said the government “recognize(s) their right to due process was denied”. These statements are, not only conflicting in terms, but are detached from what happens in real practice. This claim is good only for publicity purposes, nothing else. They rather prevent public discourse on the reality of the state of the country’s system of justice. A country that is claiming to have upheld rule of law should have not permitted the prosecution of a procedurally and legally flawed cases.

President Aquino’s order also demonstrates that the prosecution system, by giving orders to the DoJ to withdraw the charges; and of having a direct executive power on what charges can be pursued in court, is structurally under direct political control. The authority of the prosecution department, on paper is based on the legality and merit of cases; but in reality performs at the behest of executive branch. The country’s prosecution system is structurally deeply political in nature. The system does not function within the rule of law, as is being publicized, but rather of rule of lords. The prosecution service is nothing but an underdog and subservient to the executive.

This political control explains the people’s attitude that regardless of their cases, they routinely ask the President to intervene in their cases for relief and remedy–even cases that are no longer within his authority. Like for example, appeals to overturn court orders, orders of local chief executives independent from the President, appeals to have a crime investigated on which the police did not take action; and others. This explains that the people know full well the extent of the President’s political control and influence over most of the institutions of the government.

There is a double standard in the application of the rule of law and due process. They are likely to operate on the basis of how influential persons, groups or foreign governments are; how heavy the pressure is applied; how popular the demand would have to be met regardless of their reasons. The system does not operate on legality and due process that is understood in its real sense, but rather appears to be so. The system does not operate on its own course, but rather on the basis of political consideration, gain and influence. The continued existence of this type of system of justice pushes the weak and the vulnerable even further into the corner without protection.

For a related statement on this case please refer to: PHILIPPINES: A politicised, underdog system of justice