MANILA, Philippines—The Supreme Court is bent on bringing itself closer to the battle against extrajudicial killings.
Chief Justice Reynato Puno said the stage was being set for the possible rewriting of Philippine legal procedures to make these more helpful to the victims, more forceful against the suspected perpetrators, and more demanding of government agents assigned to solve such cases.
Puno said the high court would spearhead a multisectoral summit to be held next month to gather “inputs” on how the judiciary could fully use its “expanded powers” under the Constitution as a guardian of civil liberties.
“We are now planning to have this sort of congress, or a summit meeting, which would discuss the particular problem of extrajudicial killings,” Puno said at a dinner with Inquirer editors and reporters on Thursday.
He pointed out that the unsolved murders had given “a black eye to the country—and the backlash is especially on the executive department.”
The Chief Justice spoke of “new rules” that could be introduced to the legal system to address the dead ends and blank walls often impeding the investigation or prosecution of politically motivated crimes.
Asked whether the concept of command responsibility will be revisited in the summit, Puno conceded that the subject would be “one of the more difficult, ticklish parts of these rules.”
A “reconfiguration of the rules of evidence,” a review of the concept of “command responsibility,” and giving the aggrieved party more options if the writ of habeas corpus proves ineffective in locating a missing person were just some of the ideas that he floated in the exchange.
Puno conceded that the thrust of the summit could “change [the Supreme Court’s] relationship with the executive [department] and the legislature.”
He said the constitutional “power” being harnessed here by the tribunal “may in some cases conflict with the legislative power to make laws.”
The summit will try to draw participants from all three branches of government, human rights watchdog groups, the media, and the military and police, Puno said. International experts will also be invited.
SC’s rule-making power
Under the Constitution, Puno said, “the rule-making power of the Supreme Court has been expanded.”
“And under this expanded power, we can buy ourselves enough rules that will enhance the civil liberties of the people. We have not exercised this power. We want to know exactly the extent of the power,” he said.
Puno was referring to Article VIII, Section 5, of the Constitution, which states that the Supreme Court shall have the power to “promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights, pleading, practice, and procedure in all courts, the admission to the practice of law, the integrated bar, and legal assistance to the underprivileged.”
The provision adds: “Such rules shall provide a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases, shall be uniform for all courts of the same grade, and shall not diminish, increase, or modify substantive rights.
“Rules of procedure of special courts and quasi-judicial bodies shall remain effective unless disapproved by the Supreme Court.”
(Puno also spoke about beefing up the Supreme Court’s role in addressing the extrajudicial killings during a talk with journalists in Hong Kong on June 7, on the sidelines of the 12th Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific.)
Chief Justice Puno noted that in the case of a forced disappearance wherein the suspect was an “agent of government,” for example, “right now the remedy available to the victim is to file a writ of habeas corpus.”
Per procedure, he said, “the court will issue a writ ordering, let’s say, the Isafp (Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines), to produce the body of the person.”
“But as we see the realities, the Isafp will make a return saying the victim is not in their custody—and that is it,” he said.
What this means, according to the Chief Justice, is that “the writ of habeas corpus for purposes of this kind of case is not effective.”
“So we are thinking, there is a new obligation that should be imposed on agents of government in charge of protecting our people,” he said.
Perhaps some new rule can be imposed on state operatives “for them to exert all efforts to look for the victim, and for them to make periodic reports to the court on the progress of the case,” Puno said, adding:
“A certain standard could be imposed in the performance of this duty. If they fail to keep that standard, then there are sanctions that can be imposed, like citing for contempt. There must be a stricter standard to which they must be accountable.
“If we can impose this new kind of obligation on the part of the military… If there is … recklessness in the investigation, then that can be the subject of remedial measures.”
Puno cited another proposal coming from another Supreme Court justice—for the courts to have the power to issue “protective orders for witnesses” in cases of extrajudicial killings.
“If we get a lot of public support, perhaps that will melt down resistance from other branches of government,” he said. “I like to think that if we have the proper public support, we can get these new rules off the ground.”
Puno expressed the hope that the military would “welcome” this undertaking, especially because it had been “getting heat not only domestically but also internationally.”
“We have been thinking about this because … extrajudicial killings are an assault on the rule of law,” he said. “It’s an indictment of the judicial system, so we have to do something about it. It’s an expression of lack of confidence in our judicial system.”