Shockingly unimaginable


Tita Valderama

That was how the Court of Appeals described the injustice that a frail-looking lady drug suspect suffered in the hands of public officials whose mission is to ensure delivery of “effective, efficient and equitable administration of justice” to every person.

On the eve of the country’s commemoration last week of its 115th Independence Day, the CA 7th division ordered the release of 30-year-old Joanne Chua Urbina, who spent five years and six months in jail without any valid case filed in court.

But because of some technical bureaucratic requirements, Urbina was able to step out of the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame three days later on Friday night.

There is no quarrel that Urbina should bear the penalty of a crime, a heinous one at that —possession of illegal drugs and paraphernalia—but the Constitution that guarantees due process and speedy trial still applies to her. She deserved her day in court. But for still unknown reasons, some officials in the Department of Justice apparently neglected their duties after finding prima facie evidence to indict her.

And Urbina was kept in jail for five years, four months and 19 days without a case filed in court, thus depriving her of her Constitutional rights to due process and speedy trial.

“More than five years of detention, without valid information filed in court, is unreasonable; it is intolerable; it is shockingly unimaginable,” said the 18-page CA resolution penned by Associate Justice Noel G. Tijam, and concurred in by Associate Justices Romeo F. Barza and Ramon A. Cruz.

The CA said Urbina’s prolonged detention amounted to a violation of her constitutional and human rights.

The PNP Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force (AIDSOTF) arrested Urbina and her boyfriend Ben Bryan Chua in an apartment in Kamuning, Quezon City on December 14, 2007 for possession and use of illegal drugs and paraphernalia, in violation of Sections 11, 12 and 15 of Republic Act No. 9165, known as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

The police report said 114.42 grams of shabu and assorted drug paraphernalia were found in the apartment. Urbina was present when the police arrived, armed with a search warrant secured from a judge in Manila. Chua came and was also arrested and taken to Camp Crame with Urbina.

The next day, December 15, inquest proceedings began. An inquest is defined as an informal and summary investigation conducted by the public prosecutor in a criminal case involving persons arrested and detained without the benefit of a warrant of arrest issued by the court to determine whether the persons arrested should remain in custody and charged in court.

Urbina and her boyfriend spent Christmas and New Year at the PNP Custodial Center, facing complaints related to illegal drugs.

Thirty-three days later on January 25, 2008, the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office dismissed all three charges against Chua for insufficiency of evidence, but the complaint for violation of Sections 11 and 12 against Urbina remained, while Section 15 was dismissed.

Results of tests by the PNP Crime Laboratory Service on urine samples taken from Urbina and Chua turned positive for methyl amphetamine, or shabu. But the report said the specimen needed to be subjected to a confirmatory test.

The complaints against Chua and violation of Section 15 against Urbina were dismissed simply because the PNP failed to submit the required results of confirmatory tests on the accused.

Something went amiss already at that point. If the PNP was serious in its anti-drug campaign, how can a simple requirement like that are neglected?

Beyond acceptable limit
While acknowledging that the prosecutors have the mandate to prosecute Urbina, the CA said that they have gone beyond the limits of what is just and morally acceptable, noting that Urbina was made to suffer even before she was tried in court.

The decision was very telling on how some people at the DOJ trample on the Constitution, the laws, and the department’s own rules.

It is however puzzling why the CA resolution was seemingly soft on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and the DOJ prosecutors who were found amiss for keeping Urbina in jail for more than five years without a case in court and was therefore deprived of the due process.

There was no penalty for them. De Lima was simply ordered to investigate the cause of delays and to report back to the CA the results of her investigation, and to immediately install remedial measures to avoid another case of injustice.

During the CA hearing last month, Prosecutor General Claro Arellano even justified the delay of more than five years in taking Urbina to court despite very clear provisions of DOJ’s own Department Circular No. 46, prescribing the filing of an information within 24 hours upon finding of probable cause.

Arellano was Quezon City Chief Prosecutor in 2008 when the case against Urbina should have been filed in court 24 hours after January 25, 2008 when the resolution finding probable cause came out.

De Lima also erred for her failure to resolve the case for automatic review within 30 days as provided by law, from March 19, 2008 when the case records were sent to her office. Her decision came out only on May 8, 2013, just a few hours after the CA held its first hearing on Urbina’s petition for habeas corpus and certiorari. The Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office filed information to the Regional Trial Court the next day, May 9, and the case was raffled to Branch 227 the day after.

The CA, in the same resolution on June 11, struck down the information at the RTC “for having been filed way beyond the prescribed period under the pertinent rules of the Department of Justice, and for being violative of (Urbina’s) constitutional rights to a speedy disposition of her case and to due process of law.”

“Atrociously, the length of delay was way beyond the 24-hour period prescribed by RA 9165 (Dangerous Drugs law) for the filing of Information, as well as the 30-day period prescribed by the DOJ within which an automatic review of cases shall be resolved,” the CA ruling affirmed.

The “unreasonable . . . intolerable . . . shockingly unimaginable” delay in resolving Urbina’s case by the DoJ “smacks of persecution rather than prosecution and pierces through the very essence of fairness and justice,” Tijam wrote in his ruling.

The DOJ is the government’s principal law agency. As such, the DOJ serves as the government’s prosecution arm and administers the government’s criminal justice system by investigating crimes, prosecuting offenders and overseeing the correctional system.

Given the DOJ’s abominable performance in the Urbina case, we can only pray that none of the 98 million Filipinos is similarly abused by persons who were entrusted to service fairness and justice to everyone.

It was not as if the DOJ was taken by surprise that there was no case yet filed in court against Urbina. As early as September 2011, she already had a habeas corpus case at the Quezon City RTC and that should have triggered the filing of a case. But even then, that would still be beyond the 24-hour rule from Jan. 25, 2008.

In March this year, Urbina’s lawyer Siddharta Penaredondo 3rd requested the DoJ for records of the case but was told that it was still under review. An earlier search for a copy of an information at the QC RTC yielded negative.

If the persons in the justice department who have the mandate to dispense justice fairly and speedily have been remiss like what had happened in Urbina’s case, should we just grin and bear it? As the CA said, the DoJ’s performance in the case is “shockingly unimaginable.”

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  1. stanley sawit on

    would it be possible that she gets financial compensation for the number of years she spent in jail? if this happened in some other countries certainly she will get something. its so unfortunate that it happens in the philippines and not even a word of sorry will be uttere by the erring officials. paging the human rights boss madam rosales look into this please.

    • tita valderama on

      The CA did not resolve the issue of liability of the erring prosecutors, probably because the justices wanted the Justice secretary to investigate and identify who should be held accountable.
      The order was also silent on compensation for damages to Urbina, although it was raised in her memorandum.

  2. This should remind us of another woman who has been long suffering in detention without any clear and convincing evidence of her guilt of the charges against her- Gloria Macapagal Arroyo .” Shockingly unimaginable” indeed.

  3. Why don’t we jailed Leila de Lima for five years also, so she would know the sufferings of poor people like Urbina? The reason for injustice is very simple….Urbina has no money, influence and power…..period.