Ombudsman dismisses case of wrongful arrest of journalist Margarita Valle

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DAVAO CITY, Philippines – The case filed by journalist Margarita Valle against 17 military and police officers for wrongly arresting her in 2019 was dismissed by the Office of the Ombudsman for lack of evidence, except for two officers who are ordered suspended for three months.

Journalist groups called this decision a setback to hold state officers accountable for abuse and attacks on members of the press.

Valle, a veteran journalist, columnist and development worker based in Davao City, filed charges on the officers whom she said violated her rights when they arrested her in Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental last June 9, 2019.

She had narrated in her charges that officers did not allow her to read the arrest warrant or allowed her to contact her legal counsel. Her phone was taken away as she was held incommunicado for nearly 10 hours while she was brought to the Criminal Investigation and Detention Group Region 9 in Pagadian City.

The CIDG-9 spot report stated that Valle was a subject of a joint operation under “Oplan Pagtugis”, wherein they identified her as a certain Elsa Renton, an alleged communist rebel with standing arrest warrants for multiple criminal charges.

Media groups and colleagues at that time sent media alerts and prodded the Philippine National Police to release Valle. Later that night, Valle was released as the CIDG-9 apologized for their lapses and claimed this was a case of “mistaken identity”.

‘Bad precedent’

Valle filed criminal offenses of kidnapping and serious illegal detention, arbitrary detention, violation of Republic Act No. 9745, or the Anti Torture Act of 2009, and violation of the rights of persons arrested, detained or under custodial investigation.

The veteran journalist also filed administrative charges of gross misconduct, grave abuse of authority, and conduct unbecoming of a public official against personnel of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) Region 9 and Philippine Army’s 102nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.

But the Ombudsman’s decision only suspended the two respondents of the case, Police Colonel Tom Tuazon and Police Capt. Moh Madzie-Aziz K. Mukaram, whom it found administratively liable of Simple Neglect of Duty and meted three months suspension without pay.

Valle’s lawyer, Attorney Kathy Panguban, said they will file a motion for reconsideration, as she believed this is a clear case of kidnapping and arbitrary detention given the fact that the police admitted that they arrested and took Valle under their custody.

“It is not right that just because they released her and issued an apology, they already have no liabilities,” Panguban said in a phone interview. “We will not let this pass. This would set a bad precedent.”

Panguban warned that with this decision, state forces could do what they did to Valle again or to other journalists and rights advocates.

“This could happen again [to anyone] and they could just claim later on that it was only a mistaken identity. But the violation and harm was done,” she added.

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chairperson Nonoy Espina said that the decision is “unfortunate and very dangerous as it basically appears to condone the abduction by state agents of persons without proper verification.”

“It can only add to the already dangerous atmosphere for journalists especially with the Anti-Terror Law (ATL),” Espina said in a statement. The NUJP is among the petitioners against the ATL for its contentious provisions feared to silence dissent and erode democracy in the country.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines also slammed the decision saying this pushes the Duterte administration towards abusing authority.

“Transparency, accountability, integrity, lawfulness, responsiveness, and the absence of corruption and wrongdoing are the key elements of good governance. Such elements are being disregarded by the Duterte administration,” their statement said. Ken E. Cagula/davaotoday.com

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