“Upholding human rights coincides to an effective, legitimate, and impartial justice system” – A commentary on the acquittal of Juanito Jose Remulla III on possession of dangerous drugs

January 19, 2023

On October 11, 2022, Juanito Jose Remulla III – son of the Department of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla – was arrested for possession of dangerous drugs by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and members of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Inter-Agency Drug Interdiction Task Group in Las Piñas City. After less than three months, Remulla III was acquitted, which according to the Las Piñas Regional Trial Court, was due to lapses in the legal procedure under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2022.

His lawyer Atty. Kit Belmonte justified the swift resolution of Remulla III’s case based on the  Supreme Court directive that cases should be resolved within three months.

Netizens and civil society were not happy with the decision. That Remulla III is the son of the Justice Secretary, the unusually swift resolution of the case fueled suspicion that the  father had a hand in the RTC decision favoring Remulla III who had initially admitted to the crime but later on pleaded not guilty. He also refused to be tested for substance abuse.

Fr. Flavie Villanueva of AJ Kalinga Foundation said, “It is a glaring case of what both the rich and poor, the powerful and victims, can do and cannot do. But, just as the Department of Justice  has already begun its investigation on the bloody extrajudicial killings (EJK) orchestrated by the Duterte regime, let them vigorously pursue and also provide swift justice for the families of the EJK victims” on the swift resolution of Remulla’s case.

The Youth Advocates for Civilized and Appropriate Conduct towards Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Philippines (YACAP PH) strongly denounced the decision “We cannot help but think the country’s justice system is swift only for the rich and powerful but mercilessly slow and biased against the poor”, says Erick Panganiban, Co-Executive Director of YACAP PH. In April 2022, YACAP PH reported that most jails in Cavite are brimmed with drug-related crimes, a huge number of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) and persons under police custody (PUPCs) are awaiting torturously snail-paced trials. 

In its interviews with several PDLs jailed for drug related crimes, YACAP PH noted that most of the PDLs are shackled to poverty. While waiting for their cases to be heard to be tried, some wished for something as simple as food and free health consultation and dental check-up. Majority hoped for plea bargaining, which would allow the prosecution to arrive at a mutually satisfactory disposition of their cases, usually with lesser offense and minimum length of jail term. Some also wished for post bail, so they could be with their families.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘every human being has the right of equality before the law, presumption of innocence, and the right to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law’. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also re-echoes these rights and freedoms by underlining the right to be tried without undue delay. 

In 2017, the Philippines’ High Court finalized the Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases, to ‘protect and advance the constitutional rights of persons to speedy disposition of cases’. It also stated that the trial period for drug-related cases must be completed within 60 days of the prosecutor’s office filing of information or the charge. Furthermore, the decision should be made within 15 days of the case being submitted for resolution – a total of 75 days.

However, these international agreements and the court’s resolution are evidently far from being realized. Hundreds of thousands of people are deprived of liberty for prolonged periods without ever seeing a judge, or whose perfunctory court appearances stretch over years. 

According to former spokesperson of the Supreme Court and lawyer Theodore Te, fast trials are really unusual ; drug cases usually don’t get resolved in three months. Even some bail petitions don’t get resolved in three months. True enough that even former Senator Leila de Lima, charged with three drug-related cases, is still detained for almost six years. It was only in 2021 when De Lima was acquitted in one of her charges – four years after she was incarcerated for the drug cases she was jailed for. 

Kian delos Santos, whom Caloocan cops summarily killed in 2017, only had justice ten months later after he was killed. The Caloocan RTC convicted Police Staff Sergeant Arnel Oares, Patrolman Jeremias Pereda, and Patrolman Jerwin Cruz, for the murder of the 17-year-old boy.

“The judicial system appears to be cruel to the poor but merciful to the rich. People deprived of liberty with  connection to power and elite background, like Juanito Jose Diaz Remulla III, son of the Justice Secretary of the Philippines can manipulate the broken judicial system or at the very least experience “due process”, says Liza Maza, spokesperson of the Council for People’s Development and Governance. In contrast, the poor are discriminated against, are criminalized, put behind bars, and worse, killed – like Kian delos Santos, Jefferson Bunuan, Carl Arnaiz, Reynaldo de Guzman, and the thousands more victims of the drug war killed without being given due process. Many others are incarcerated while awaiting trial for years already. The already overcrowded prison cells across the country have become all the more cramped and unhealthy for PDLs.

The broken judicial system stems from the government’s failure to uphold human rights and its disregard for the plight of the impoverished Filipino masses. 

Amid these systemic problems with the judiciary and the carceral, CPDG demands the full and effective implementation of the Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules to address severe overcrowding in detention facilities, uphold detainees’ right to health, and improve capacity building programs for successful prosecution of erring officials. Measures include installing equipment to monitor search and arrest operations and places of detention and improving health care services and facilities including those pertaining to reproductive health care and mental health. These recommendations are included in the joint stakeholders recommendations to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines Human Rights Situation. 

CPDG along with all stakeholders that jointly submitted priority recommendations for the UPR of the Philippines calls on the Philippine government to adopt and effectively implement the recommendations of governments during the UPR in November 2022 to reform the country’s justice system, provide access to justice by families of the victims of the bloody war on drugs brutally carried out by state forces during and after the Duterte administration, ensure prompt, independent and impartial investigations of all instances of arbitrary arrests and detention of persons suspected of drug-related offences including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and conduct fair and speedy trials for all.#eof#