[Keywords: Hukbalahap, Batangas Court of First Instance, Supreme Court of the Philippines, Ramon Diokno, Jose W. Diokno, Proclamation No. 76, s. 1948]
On 11 May 1948, the Batangas Court of First Instance found one Cresencio Ruben Tolentino, an officer of the Hukbalahap movement, guilty of the crime of illegal assembly1. The term “Hukbalahap” was short for “Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon” (National Army Against the Japanese), originally formed as a guerrilla force to fight against the Japanese in World War II but, being of a communist inclination, became a rebel group against the Philippine government after the war2.
The crime of illegal assembly is inciting an audience “to the commission of the crime of treason, rebellion or insurrection, sedition or assault upon a person in authority or his agents3.” While the Hukbalahap movement’s main strongholds were Central Luzon and Manila, they were also actively recruiting in Southern Luzon, including Batangas.
On 21 June 1948, then-President Elpidio Quirino issued Proclamation No. 76, s. 1948, the substance of which was
“ an amnesty in favor of the leaders and members of the associations known as Hukbalahap and Pambansang Kaisahan ng mga Magbubukid (PKM) who have committed the crimes of rebellion, sedition, illegal association, assault upon, resistance and disobedience to persons in authority, and/or illegal possession of firearms; provided, however, that this amnesty shall apply only to those of said groups of persons who have presented themselves with all their arms and ammunition and to those who shall have presented themselves with all their firearms and ammunition to the duly constituted authorities of the Republic of the Philippines within twenty days from the date this proclamation is concurred in by the Congress4.”
Tolentino, although he was in prison, had petitioned the Office of the President for his release under the stipulations of the proclamation. No action was taken, so Tolentino’s lawyers filed a case in court. He had prominent representation in Ruben and Jose “Pepe” W. Diokno of the famous political family of Batangueño origin.
While the judge, one Juan Enriquez, conceded that Tolentino was, indeed, covered by the amnesty proclamation, he refused to issue a writ of habeas corpus5 on the basis of a technicality. Enriquez was of the opinion that the release of prisoners under the amnesty was vested upon a committee created for this purpose whereas Tolentino had sent his petition directly to the President.
About this opinion, the Supreme Court had this to say:
“ If the petitioner is entitled to the benefits of this proclamation and he is unable to obtain his release through executive channels, it devolves on the courts to protect his rights. This is a fundamental right which cannot be left to the decision of executive officers. This should be especially true where, as an in this case, the implementation committee was not the creation of the proclamation nor was it even mentioned in this document. The committee was appointed by the Secretary of Justice as an instrumentality to facilitate, not to hinder or obstruct, the carrying out of the provisions of the amnesty.”
The Solicitor General, too, was apparently unconvinced by the judge’s decision and passed it on to the Supreme Court for review. His opposition to Tolentino’s petition, instead, was premised on the latter’s alleged failure to produce arms for surrender to the government as was called for by the amnesty proclamation.
However, attached to the records of the Court of First Instance was a document signed by the Commanding Officer of the Philippine Constabulary6 in Batangas saying that Tolentino himself had presented a .45 Remington caliber pistol. While the Provincial Fiscal conceded that the signature was authentic, he also questioned its validity by saying that he had not seen the document when the case was being tried in court. He also being claimed that the gun was actually surrendered by another member of the Hukbalahap movement.
To this the Supreme Court had this to say:
“The provincial fiscal’s insinuation that the gun was surrendered by another Hukbalahap has nothing to support it than his belief. Belief, suspicion and conjectures cannot overcome the presumption of regularity and legality which attaches to the certificate in question. But granting the truth of the fiscal's statement, it nevertheless may be that the petitioner, who was an officer in the Hukbalahap organization, was the true and real owner of the weapon and not the man who previously surrendered it.”
There was also the question of the applicability of the amnesty proclamation to those members of the Hukbalahap and the PKM who were already “undergoing sentence upon the date of its (the proclamation’s) promulgation.” About this, the Supreme Court wrote:
“No compelling reason is apparent for excluding Hukbalahaps of any class or condition from its object, which is “to forgive, and forego the prosecution of the crimes of rebellion, sedition, etc.,” as a “just and wise measure of the Government.” We are to suppose that the President and the Congress, knowing that a good number of Hukbalahap and PKM affiliates had been or were being prosecuted, would have, in clear terms, left them out if that had been the intention, instead of leaving their exclusion to inference.”
Suffice it to say that by the very tone of these pronouncements, the highest court in the land had taken a magnanimous position not just vis-à-vis the proclamation itself but also with regards Tolentino’s petition. To conclude, the court’s final ruling was: “The writ (habeas corpus) will be granted and the petitioner discharged from confinement immediately without costs. It is so ordered.”
Notes and references:1 The primary details of this article are taken from “Cresencio Ruben Tolentino v Cesario Catoy, Provincial Warde of Batangas, Batangas,” online at The LawPhil Project.
2 “Hukbalahap,” Wikipedia.
3 “Presidential Decree No. 1834,” online at The LawPhil Project.
4 “Proclamation No. 76, s. 1948,” online at the Official Gazette.
5 Habeas corpus, according to the Free Legal Dictionary, is “A writ of habeas corpus directs a person, usually a prison warden, to produce the prisoner and justify the prisoner's detention.”
6 “The Philippine Constabulary (PC; Filipino: Hukbóng Pamayapà ng Pilipinas, HPP; Spanish: Constabularia Filipina, CF) was a gendarmerie-type police force of the Philippines from 1901 to 1991. It was created by the American colonial government to replace the Spanish colonial Guardia Civil. It was the first of the four service commands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. On January 29, 1991, it was merged with the Integrated National Police to form the Philippine National Police,” Wikipedia.