By Julius D. Mariveles
TO REIN in the culture of impunity, and the relentless rise in the cases of extra-juidicial killing of journalists in the Philippines, the country’s top human rights lawyer, Atty. Jose Manuel Diokno, has proposed five reform measures.
Among others, he said the Government might do well to get out of its “state of denial” that cases exist, the judiciary might allow prompt perpetuation of testimony by witnesses, and the Ombudsman might be asked to prosecute members of the judiciary who are failing in their duty to rush resolution of the cases.
“Impunity is the dark side of accountability,” Diokno, founding dean of the De La Salle College of Law, said.
With the Philippines still ranked third last year in the 2013 Impunity Index of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, impunity became one of the central issues discussed by journalists, bloggers, diplomats, and press freedom advocates during a forum marking World Press Freedom Day on April 29 in Intramuros, Manila.
Diokno, who is also the national chairperson of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), said the judiciary can make the first step in the fight against impunity by placing it at the top of the judicial agenda.
The Philippine government had been in a “state of denial” about impunity for the past eight years and has always been claiming that extra-judicial killings were being committed by “misguided elements of the military and police” and are only “isolated cases.”
It was only in 2007, he said, when the government did something concrete about EJK cases when then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Administrative Order No. 181 ordering public prosecutors and law-enforcement officials to work together to investigative these cases.
Diokno also said EJKs and other grave human rights abuses in the country “pose an even greater challenge” because it has a judicial system that is “outmoded, inefficient, highly-congested and extremely slow.”
“Unless given special attention, (human rights) cases tend to get lost in the judicial shuffle; they also tend to take forever.”
Diokno also proposed the following reform measures:
For the government to include human rights organizations in the inter-agency committee created through Administrative Order No.35 that President Benigno S. Aquino III issued in November 2012.
Headed by the Justice Secretary and composed of other cabinet members, the committee has become the centerpiece of the Aquino administration’s efforts to resolve cases of impunity.
It is, however, a purely government body with no representatives from human rights organizations. Diokno recalled that in 1990, during the administration of Aquino’s mother, Corazon, FLAG and the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines were among the members of a similar committee.
“We were able get a lot of things done quickly with cases that need the attention of government,” he said.
Come up with a mechanism to preserve the testimonies of witnesses.
Diokno said based on his experience as a human rights lawyer, the lack of this system is “the biggest obstacle to a successful prosecution of human rights cases.”
With criminal cases lasting between five and 10 years, witnesses often get compromised, lose interest or get killed because of the delay in the trial. He said FLAG had long been pushing for Congress to pass a law and for the Supreme Court to come up with rules that would expand the rules on the admission of testimonies from witnesses.
Fill up vacant positions for judges and prosecutors with qualified and dedicated lawyers.
This alone could hasten the speed by which cases are decided, Diokno said.
He described the vacancy of positions for prosecutors and judges to be “quite alarming,” citing that two out of 10 positions for prosecutors and judges have not been filled up.
In 2007, data from the National Statistical Coordination Board showed the country only had 1,717 judges compared to the 2,182 judges needed at all levels, or a vacancy of 465.
In fact, judges in the lower courts handled an average of 644 cases every year or about three cases to be resolved each day, according to an article of Dr. Jose Ramon G. Albert published on the NSCB website.
Allow the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate and prosecute members of the judiciary.
Diokno, a leading advocate for transparency in the judiciary, said the Constitution provides that all government officials and employees can be investigated by the Ombudsman, the watchdog created after then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. was forced out of power in 1986.
However, a ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Judge Bonifacio Maceda of the Regional Trial Court in Antique on April 22, 1193 practically excluded the High Court from the investigating authority of the Ombudsman.
“It is practically the Supreme Court that took itself out of the equation with that decision,” Diokno said as he called on Congress and the government to restore the investigative power of the Ombudsman over the High Tribunal.
In the end, Diokno said how justice is administered would “determine if a country would follow the path of impunity or the less-traveled road of accountability.” – PCIJ, May 2015