By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – A lawyers group assailed the transfer of the hearing venue of the Tiamzon spouses, from the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (QC RTC), to what it called government’s “home court advantage” inside Camp Crame.
The pre-trial hearing of Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria, peace consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, was held at the Training Center in Camp Crame in Quezon City at 8:30 am, on 9 February.
“To continue the judicial proceedings inside a police fortress under very hostile conditions and atmosphere, and beyond open scrutiny is inconsistent with the minimum requirements of due process” Edre Olalia, secretary general of National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, said in a statement. He said that “a fair and impartial trial requires a public hearing.”
In an en banc resolution issued on Nov. 25, the Supreme Court granted the motion of the QC RTC Executive Judge Fernando Sagun Jr., requesting the transfer of hearing venue of the Tiamzon couple from QC RTC Branch 81 to Camp Crame, national headquarters of the Philippine National Police.
Olalia, however, said that they learned of Sagun’s motion to the SC and the subsequent decision to transfer only on Jan. 30, when they received a letter from presiding Judge Madonna Echiverri. Echiverri’s letter, dated Jan. 25, relayed the motion, the SC decision, and Sagun’s exchanges with acting Philippine National Police chief Director General Leonardo Espina deciding on the hearing venue.Olalia said he saw a copy of the SC en banc decision only during the Feb. 9 hearing inside Camp Crame.
The Tiamzons were arrested on March 2014 in Cebu. Both are tagged by the military as top officials of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Judge Sagun’s motion stemmed from the Oct. 21 incident, in which the Quezon City Justice Hall cancelled all of its hearings when nearly 1,000 peasants picketed outside the court, calling for the release of the Tiamzons.
“Such unilateral move is not only an overreaction to a legitimate and peaceful rally during the last hearing at the premises of the QC Hall of Justice by peasants seeking the release of political prisoners but is also a clear reprisal for a valid exercise of a basic constitutional right,” Olalia said.
Olalia also said they were not given an opportunity to answer the motion. With all its resources, he added, the government only needs to continue its previous security measures and referred to the transfer as “unreasonable.”
Lawyers, during the hearing, reiterated that their presence there should not be construed that they are acquiescing to the transfer. They plan to file necessary motions this week.
Three lawyers namely Ameh Sato, Carlos Montemayor and Jill Santos were initially barred from entering the venue. Two more lawyers, Anton Principe and Julian Oliva Jr., were not at all allowed to enter the premises.
Only Olalia and Rachel Pastores of the Public Interest Law Center were recognized by the Headquarters Support Service of the Philippine National Police.
Human rights workers, too, were not allowed to enter the hearing venue. Police said it was the order of Judge Sagon but failed to show any written order. They also said that there was not enough space in the hearing venue.
Media were also barred from covering or even interviewing the Tiamzons and their counsels in the Training Center.
Military and police personnel, some in civilian clothes, were inside the hearing venue, Olalia related.
Olalia said he also heard a military officer saying that the defense counsels must submit the names of those who will attend the next hearing at least 10 days before. They will also screen those who will attend five times, from the two gates, building entrance, elevator and before entering the court room.
“The transfer of venue also puts at risk the security of our clients’ witnesses and of counsels as well. Finally, it is not conducive to the search for truth as witnesses for the defense will be intimidated by the overbearing presence of scores of police and intelligence personnel enjoying a homecourt advantage to the exclusion of the general public,” Olalia said.
A preliminary conference will be held on Mar. 4 while the next hearing is set on Apr. 15.
Olalia assailed the seeming “blindsiding” by prosecutors during the pretrial conference. Though witnesses’ names were provided, prosecutors refused to provide when they are coming and what their respective testimonies would be.
With the case being nearly 27 years old, Olalia said that they need the names of the witnesses to check their credibility. Part of the due process, he added, involves “no surprises.”
Prosecutor Ronald Torralba, however, virtually admitted he is not certain if they could produce witnesses. He also cited security risks and that witnesses are in far-flung areas, Olalia said.
“That is their problem. It is the burden of the state to prove the case, not the accused,” Olalia told Bulatlat.com.
Judge Echiverri ruled that only names of witnesses that will be submitted and documents that will be marked would be admitted before the court.