Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Corruption through nepotism, personal connections, and sometimes bribery continued to result in relative impunity for wealthy or influential offenders. Insufficient personnel, inefficient processes, and long procedural delays also hindered the judicial system. These factors contributed to widespread skepticism that the criminal justice system delivered due process and equal justice.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed from office in June due to her alleged failure to submit all wealth declaration documents when she applied for the position in 2012. Human rights groups alleged Sereno’s vocal opposition to the conduct of the drug war played a significant role in the decision.
Trials took place as a series of separate hearings, often months apart, as witnesses and court time became available, contributing to lengthy delays. There was a widely recognized need for more prosecutors, judges, and courtrooms. As of June 30, approximately one-third of authorized prosecutor positions (1,060 positions) were unfilled. Sharia (Islamic law) court positions continued to be particularly difficult to fill because of the requirement that applicants be members of both the Sharia Bar and the Integrated Bar. Sharia courts do not have criminal jurisdiction. Although the Prosecutor General received authority to hire hundreds of new prosecutors for sharia courts, training for them was of short duration and considered inadequate.
The Supreme Court continued efforts to provide speedier trials, reduce judicial malfeasance, increase judicial branch efficiency, and raise public confidence in the judiciary. It continued to implement guidelines to accelerate resolution of cases in which the maximum penalty would not exceed six years in prison. In 2016 the judiciary instituted new court rules and procedures for case processing that limited the postponement of hearings and made other procedural changes to expedite case processing. Implementation of the most significant part of the reform, e‑Courts and the Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases in Pilot Courts, began in 2017.
The constitution provides for the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial. An independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although not in a timely manner. The law requires that all persons accused of crimes be informed of the charges against them and grants rights to counsel, adequate time to prepare a defense, and a speedy and public trial before a judge. No criminal proceeding goes forward against a defendant without the presence of a lawyer. The law presumes defendants are innocent. They have the right to confront witnesses against them, be present at their trial, present evidence in their favor, appeal convictions, and not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The court may appoint an interpreter if necessary. If the court’s interpreter makes serious mistakes, a party can challenge the interpretation. The government generally implemented these requirements, except for the right to a speedy trial.
Although the law provides that cases should be resolved within three months to two years, depending on the court, trials effectively had no time limits. Government officials estimated it took an average of five to six years to obtain a decision. In September a court convicted retired general Jovito Palparan and two subordinates of kidnapping and illegal detention after a four-year-long trial. The incident, in 2006, involved the disappearance of two university students. Palparan, who was allegedly also deeply involved in extrajudicial killings and torture, was sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was a positive example of the courts’ ability to hold security force leaders accountable for their actions.
Authorities respected a defendant’s right to representation by a lawyer, but poverty often inhibited access to effective legal counsel. The Public Attorney’s Office, which reports to the Department of Justice, did not have the necessary resources to fulfill its constitutional mandate and used its limited resources to represent indigent defendants at trial rather than during arraignments or pretrial hearings. During pretrial hearings courts may appoint any lawyer present in the courtroom to provide on-the-spot counsel to the accused.
Sentencing decisions were not always consistent with legal guidelines, and judicial decisions sometimes appeared arbitrary.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Under a 1945 law, the government defines political prisoners as those who may be accused of any crime against national security. Using this definition, BuCor reported 185 political prisoners in its facilities as of August. The BJMP does not track political prisoners and defines prisoners based only on security risk.
Various human rights NGOs maintained lists of incarcerated persons they considered political prisoners. The TFDP tracked political detainees, most of whom were in pretrial detention. The TFDP noted that, in the majority of cases, authorities mixed political prisoners with the general inmate population, except in the National Bilibid Prison, where they held most political prisoners in maximum-security facilities.
Two years after her arrest, during which prosecutors used a variety of legal tactics to delay arraignment, including filing new and amending previous charges, Senator Leila de Lima was arraigned in August on a charge of conspiracy to commit drug trading. An arraignment scheduled for May was postponed when prosecutors sought another opportunity to revise the charges. The opening of the trial in September was postponed when a prosecution witness recanted his testimony. De Lima’s case began in 2016 after she opened hearings into killings related to the antidrug campaign. Although in detention, de Lima had access to the media and some visitors. Her case attracted widespread domestic and international attention, with many observers denouncing the charges as politically motivated.
The government permitted regular access to political prisoners by international humanitarian organizations.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Most analysts regarded the judiciary as independent and impartial in civil matters. Complainants have access to local trial courts to seek civil damages for, or cessation of, human rights abuses. There are administrative as well as judicial remedies for civil complaints, although overburdened local courts often dismissed these cases. There were no regional human rights tribunals that could hear an appeal from the country.