CA dismisses murder case vs detained, tortured pastor


By Leila Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:51:00 09/28/2008

MANILA — The Court of Appeals has ordered the dismissal of a murder case filed against a Protestant pastor who had accused police of beating him up while he was in detention.

The appellate court’s third division, in a September 23 ruling penned by Justice Martin Villarama Jr., said the Bacoor regional trial court failed to conduct a proper preliminary investigation of the charge against Pastor Berlin Guerrero of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

The appellate court said Guerrero was not given the chance to refute the allegations against him and was not notified of the proceedings in the murder case.

It criticized Carmona municipal circuit trial court Judge Myrna Lim-Verano, who handled the preliminary investigation of the murder case, for not giving Guerrero the chance to defend himself and allowing the case to proceed despite weak evidence.

It also pointed out that Guerrero had been living normally and publicly, carrying out his duties as pastor, when the case was revived after 15 years. It supported the claims of the pastor, who was arrested in May 2007, that he was abducted, physically tortured, interrogated and accused of being a communist and leftist leader.

“The Court cannot condone such injustice and travesty of rights of an ordinary citizen charged with a serious crime during and after preliminary investigation when the information based on an invalid proceeding had been filed in court. The patent disregard of the laws and rules in the conduct of preliminary investigation by the investigating Judge clearly constitutes grave abuse of discretion that warrants the exercise of this Court’s corrective power,” it said in a September 23 ruling.

Justices Noel Tijam and Arturo Tayag of the third division, concurred with the decision penned by Villarama.

It came weeks after the appellate court also ordered the provisional release of Guerrero to former Senate president Jovito Salonga and his lawyer, Emilio Capulong, while deliberating on his petition that sought to dismiss the murder case against him.

When the order for release came, Guerrero had been in detention for more than a year.

In its decision, the appellate court said Lim-Verano violated the then-prevailing 1985 Rules of Procedure when she failed to subpoena Guerrero so that he could study the case and refute the allegations against him.

It also said Lim-Verano just took note of the fact that the pastor did not file his counter-affidavit, and allowed the case to proceed despite weak evidence.

“Such actuation betrays Judge Lim-Verano’s disregard of the accused’s basic right to due process, which is particularly appalling considering her awareness of the weak evidentiary basis for probable cause against accused Berlin Guerrero,” it said.

The court added that Lim-Verrano accepted the witness’ sworn statement as sufficient without the witness being brought before her.

The appellate court also cited the Supreme Court decision that had dismissed the government’s rebellion cases against militant lawmakers because political considerations had tainted the Department of Justice’s preliminary investigation of the complaints.

It said the ruling stressed that procedures for preliminary investigations should be followed scrupulously to protect people’s rights.

Although generally, criminal proceedings could not be stopped, exceptions were given when the proceedings turned into a case of prosecution, the court said.

The Court of Appeals pointed to an ongoing campaign by the judiciary to uphold human rights in the light of abuses committed by the military and police in their counter-insurgency operations.

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