The Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), in partnership with the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) and the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA) of the Supreme Court, with the support of the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT), conducted a series of Online Focus Group Discussions (FGD) onTrafficking in Persons Cases, that aims to increase knowledge in the prosecution, adjudication and review of Trafficking in Persons cases.

The first FGD was conducted last 23 July 2020, which was participated by Justice Geraldine C. Fiel-Macaraig of the Court of Appeals, six (6) Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judges, and six (6) Prosecutors from Regions 1, 2 and 3. The second was held on2 October 2020, with the active participation of Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Remedios A. Salazar-Fernando (now CA Presiding Justice) and Justice Angeles Mary Quimpo- Sale, five (5) RTC Judges, and eight (8) Prosecutors from Regions 4 and 5.Representatives from the law enforcement agencies (NBI and PNP) participated in the second FGD, which highlighted the importance of the corroborative testimony of the law enforcement officers conducting entrapment operations.

Both FGDs were graced by the virtual presence of the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Steven J. Robinson AO, Chancellor Adolfo S. Azcuna – of the Philippine Judicial Academy of the Supreme Court, Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra of the Department of Justice, and Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta of the Supreme Court.

The focus of the discussion was the Supreme Court decision in People vs. Rodriguez y Hermosa (G.R. No. 211721, September 20, 2017), a qualified trafficking in persons case where the prosecution evidence was anchored solely on the testimony of a Police Officer, one of the arresting officers. In this case, the Supreme Court acquitted the accused for failure of the sole witness to prove the elements of the crime of trafficking in persons, saying, inter alia, that “(g)iven that the police officer’s testimony is missing on material details, the prosecution should have presented in court at least one of the three (3) women that indeed they were sexually exploited or recruited by the accused for prostitution as alleged in the information.” The Supreme Court further said that “(t)hese women would be in the best position to say that Rodriguez had recruited or used these women by giving them payments or benefits in exchange for sexual exploitation.”

During the discussion, all the participants, including the Justices and Judges, agreed that it is not the intention of the Supreme Court to automatically acquit the accused once the prosecution failed to present the victim to testify. It was further clarified in the discussion that the acquittal of accused Rodriguez is not solely on the ground of the absence of victim’s testimony but more so on the insufficient/deficient testimony of the prosecution’s sole witness to prove the essential elements of the crime of trafficking in persons.

It is on this part of the discussion that Justices, Judges, and Prosecutors suggested several important points that should be taken into consideration in prosecuting TIP cases where the victim’s testimony is either unavailable and/or could not be presented in court for some valid reasons, to wit:

1. The value of victimless prosecution where evidence to prove the elements of trafficking in persons is well corroborated;

2. The Importance of entrapment operations to support victimless prosecution;

3. The need to invest and support on child protective measures in prosecuting trafficking in persons cases, such as the use of Videotaped in-depth interviews (VIDI) kit in compliance with the Rule on Examination of a Child Witness (RECW);

4. The need to re-examine the power of the state to exercise longer protective custody over adult victims for our Social Welfare Officers to be able to fully and effectively process their psychological trauma, and address issue concerning their vulnerability to revictimization and retraumatization;

5. The importance of protective care custody and assistance for the victims during the whole judicial process; and

6. A recommendation for courts to continue receiving victim testimony via teleconferencing even after COVID-19.

In sum, this activity seeks to solidify the common ground of all key pillars of the criminal justice system to ensure the best interest of the child and not to burden the child of the responsibility of proving his/her case. The IACAT, together with its partners to this cause, will continue to craft and utilize better tools and innovative interventions towards effective victimless prosecution of trafficking in persons cases.