PHILIPPINES: Lack of independence and political interference undermining prosecution system

The participants from throughout Asia gathered for the Fourth Regional Consultation on an Asian Charter for the Rule of Law in Hong Kong from the 17-21 November 2008 studied the state of the prosecution system in the Philippines and its implications for human rights.

The Philippines’ prosecution service, though maturing in recent years after being undermined during periods of martial rule, continues to suffer from political interference and still has a mindset that contributes to passivity which at times borders on abdication of responsibility. As a result the course of justice has at times been frustrated by its incapacity or unwillingness to dispense its duties effectively and adequately.

The National Prosecution Service (NPS), a government agency to which all public prosecutors are attached, remains under the direct control of the executive. The Department of Justice (DoJ), whose secretary is a presidential appointee, oversees the NPS, thereby exposing it to political interference, including through the removal and imposition of punishment upon public prosecutors with approval of the president. In recent times, there has been an increase in the number of cases brought through the service against people critical of the government.
Appointed secretaries of the DoJ have also become government mouthpieces instead of impartially pursuing cases in court for violations of the Penal Code and the constitution. And rather than imposing adequate checks and balances, for instance, by legislating to ensure that the prosecution is independent from the DoJ, successive administrations have instead continued to manipulate the prosecution service for political ends.

At the same time, impeachment proceedings and prosecution of administrative cases before the Office of the Ombudsman have become completely political exercises, exploited so that politicians can obtain favours, if not money, to support or reject moves to impeach the head of state. Instead of exercising the power given to them as representatives of their constituents so as to uphold civilian supremacy the members of both houses are using impeachment proceedings for personal and party survival.

The Office of Ombudsman, whose heads are also presidential appointees, has since likewise apparently failed to perform the role required of them in most cases that they have taken to court, in particular those involving officials occupying high-ranking positions and elected officials who have been accused of committing wrongdoing while in office. Deliberate delays in concluding cases filed in courts, trivialization of charges against those accused and the lack of performance pledges and accountability indicates that the office has virtually given up on its job, despite the considerable power it wields as a constitutional body established to prosecute wrongdoings of elected and public officials, especially security forces alleged to have committed human rights violations.

While targeted extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have dropped sharply there have been serious developments regarding the use of the prosecution service against political activists, human rights defenders and lawyers. The filing of legally incoherent and questionable murder charges against labour lawyer Remigio Saladero Jr. and several other known activists in connection with an ambush in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro two years ago illustrates that the prosecution system is being exploited for objectives inimical to human rights and the rule of law. Had Saladero not been arbitrarily arrested on October 23 of this year, he and his fellow accused would have not known that they had been charged over this offence, as they had not received any subpoenas or notices from the prosecutor’s office and had thus not learned of the charges against them or made any defence. As to the charges, they have been so badly fabricated that it had apparently been overlooked that one of the accused was bedridden with diabetes at the time it occurred, while another had never been to the place of the incident in his entire life. Their names were added to the complaint by amending it on the pretext that they are the same persons who were earlier identified as “John Does and Jane Does” by a witness. However, the manner in which this was done was contrary to DoJ Circular No. 50, which requires that prosecutors should have solicited information from the witnesses and that they must ensure that the descriptions of those described as John Does or Jane Does match those of the persons later named as them.

These are among many other issues that were taken up concerning prosecution in the Philippines during the Fourth Regional Consultation on an Asian Charter for the Rule of Law and their implications for human rights, and to which the participants felt it necessary for the government to draw its attention. In particular, participants urged that the government and public in the Philippines should engage in vigorous discussion on the reestablishment of an independent prosecution service free from any forms of political interference, with policies to ensure strong checks and balances. By failing to address these issues effectively, the capacity of the prosecution service to impartially dispense its duties will continue to be seriously undermined. Any hope for legal redress and remedies for victims of human rights violations and for the holding of state agents accountable for abuses of human rights ultimately depends on the strength of the prosecution service.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-301-2008
Countries : Philippines,