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‘If fear is contagious, so is courage’

‘If fear is contagious, so is courage’

It was the most impressive delivery of justice I have witnessed in my more than two decades of being a lawyer.

The families of four garbage collectors who were killed and a vegetable vendor who survived, were given permanent protection from four policemen who perpetrated the killings under the guise of “Oplan Tokhang.” And the protection order was issued just two weeks after the families sought help from the judiciary.

I have earlier written about the case in this space (“The cruel, the fearful, and the brave,” 2/6/17). The case, which is a petition for a writ of amparo—a remedy for violation of or threat against a person’s right to life, liberty, or security—was filed last Jan. 26. It was instituted in behalf of the families of the victims (Marcelo Daa Jr., Raffy Gabo, Anthony Comendo, and Jessie Cule) and the lone survivor (Efren Morillo) because they were being harassed and intimidated by the policemen who committed the killings.

Just five days after the case was filed, the Supreme Court swiftly issued a temporary protection order prohibiting the entire Philippine National Police from entering a one-kilometer radius from the residences and workplaces of the complainants. The high court’s order gave protection not only to the complainants but to the entire community inside the one-kilometer radius. The sweeping protection given to an urban poor community near the Payatas garbage dump is an impressive demonstration of the Supreme Court’s grave concern about police operations that have resulted in thousands of people killed in the hands of policemen.

Just 14 days after the case was filed, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) submitted its answer by routinely opposing the petition. The next day, however, during the oral arguments, the OSG had a stunning change of heart: It conceded that the complainants are entitled to a protection order against the policemen accused of the killings. Led by Assistant Solicitor General Herman Cimafranca, the OSG remarkably chose to live up to the role of being the Tribune of the People by siding with the complainants and agreeing that they indeed need protection from the respondent-policemen.

Just 15 days after the case was filed, the Court of Appeals (CA) issued a decision giving permanent protection to the complainants. The CA permanently barred the four respondent-policemen from getting within a one-kilometer radius from the residences and workplaces of the complainants; directed the PNP to reassign the respondent-policemen to offices outside Quezon City and Montalban, which are the cities where the complainants reside and work; suspended indefinitely the implementation of any “Oplan Tokhang” operations against the complainants; and directed the PNP to inform the complainants of the results of the police investigation on the killings.

CA Justices Apolinario Bruselas, Danton Bueser and Renato Francisco speedily issued their written decision on Feb. 10, the very same day they heard the oral arguments. Justice Bruselas shepherded the proceedings in a most praiseworthy manner that inevitably resulted in making obvious the kind of protection needed by the complainants, and the justices proceeded to spell these out in their decision.

Tin Antonio, a member of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw) team of young lawyers representing the complainants, shared on Facebook a snippet of her observations: “During the oral arguments before the CA, our women petitioners found one of the perpetrators, PO3 Allan Formilleza, directly in their path. Their poor escort had to plead with them not to go up to Formilleza and cause a scene. They wanted to confront him why he stole the lives of their loved ones. It was anguish freely felt and freed from fear.”

Antonio articulated the spirit that animates Centerlaw’s young lawyers: “This is the essence of our human rights work: To make people realize that fear can be conquered. That if fear is contagious, so is courage.”

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