Comelec officials are no show at Writ hearing
August 5, 2013

Court of Appeals, Maria Orosa St., Manila
Court of Appeals, Maria Orosa St., Manila

The Court of Appeals (CA) on July 30, 2013 heard AES Watch individual conveners’ petition for a Writ of Habeas Data which was earlier filed with the Supreme Court (SC) on July 3. The CA’s 9th Division presided by Justice Hakim S. Abdulwahid with two other justices heard the petition.

Respondents from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) led by chairman Sixto S. Brillantes, Jr., as well as Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Deputy President Spokesperson Abigail Valte did not show up.

The first hearing heard the stipulations of the petitioners’ lawyer, H. Harry Roque, Jr., who is also a co-petitioner in the case. The respondents were represented by the office of Solicitor General. Justice Abdulwahid set the presentation of testimonial evidence to begin on Aug. 20.

On July 3, 14 conveners and members of the Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) petitioned the Supreme Court (SC) to issue a Writ of Habeas Data against Chairman Sixto S. Brillantes, Jr. and six other commissioners of the Comelec.

The Writ petitioners, among them former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman and Comelec whistleblower Atty. Melchor Magdamo, asked the SC to compel the Comelec to cease and desist from placing AES Watch member-organizations under surveillance using a P30M intelligence fund. They also asked the high court to direct the respondents to disclose to the court and petitioners and, subsequently, to destroy whatever intelligence information had been gathered against AES Watch members and other election watchdogs.

The petition arose from Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Valte’s confirmation last May 24 of the existence of a P30M intelligence fund of Comelec that came from the presidential office. Valte then said, “The justification is supposed to be utilized for intelligence, counter intelligence activities and gathering of information relative to the activities of certain groups, individuals and technology experts suspected of conducting overt and covert operations to sabotage the results of the elections.”

Brillantes had earlier accused AES Watch, a broad citizens’ election watchdog led by former Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr., of “election sabotage.” He also vowed to expose the people behind AES Watch and sue them. At one time, the Comelec chairman threatened his critics telling media, “They made our life difficult. Now, they should watch out how I get payback.”

Petitioners, through counsel Romel Bagares, asked that the office of the President, through Executive Secretary Ochoa, to permanently cease and desist from providing the Comelec with intelligence funds, considering “the rank unconstitutionality and illegality of such provision of funds and the questionable use of such funds to stifle free speech and free expression as well as threaten the right of citizens to be secure in their persons.”

Bobby M. Tuazon, a co-convener of AES Watch, said that members of AES Watch have actually experienced being tailed during the election campaign at the time the intelligence funds were supposed to be used to spy on Comelec critics and alleged “election saboteurs.” Tuazon, who is also the director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), said that AES Watch has been monitoring the automated elections since 2010 and has engaged Comelec, Congress, and other agencies with transparency and full documentation. Instead of engaging us in open and healthy debate Comelec, particularly Brillantes, has resorted to labeling and threats to discredit and silence us, Tuazon said.

The petitioners said respondents’ admissions about an on-going surveillance by their assets and/or personnel of critics of the Comelec’s handling of the automation of the last two nationwide elections coupled with the threats of prosecution they issued against the same critics – including the Writ petitioners – “constitute acts held to be in prior restraint with chilling effect on free speech and free expression under the Constitution.” In Chavez v. Gonzales, the SC ruled that even mere press statements made by government officials in their official functions constitute “content-based prior restraint” that violates the constitutional protection granted to free speech and expression.

To begin with, the petitioners averred, Comelec commissioners violated the Constitution when they granted themselves P30M in “intelligence funds,” purportedly realigned from the poll body’s 2012 savings, and intended for, among others, spying on civil society election watchdogs whom they called “troublemakers.” The realignment violates the General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2012, which specifically prohibits the Comelec – a constitutional commission - from having or otherwise using intelligence funds.

Evidently, the petitioners said, there are serious grounds for the issuance of the Writ of Habeas Data in favor of the Aggrieved Parties in this case because of violations by respondents of their right to privacy in life, liberty and or security through the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information regarding the person, family, home and correspondence of the aggrieved parties.

The other petitioners are: CBCP Bishop Broderick Pabillo, DD; lawyer Harry Roque; Mother Superior Mary John Mananzan, OSB and former president of St. Scholastica’s College; whistleblower Engr. Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada; Evita L. Jimenez, executive director of CenPEG; Maricor Akol of; Dr.Pablo R. Manalastas, CenPEG Fellow for IT; IT security expert Lito Averia; Fr. Joe Dizon of Kontra Daya; Anna Leah Escresa-Colina of labor poll watchgroup We Watch; and lawyer Greg Fabros.

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