Stopping modern slavery one lecture at a time

Atty Bernabe (right) during one of her lectures (Photo courtesy of the Special Services Division, Baguio City Mayor’s Office)

BAGUIO CITY— Her city is not among the known human trafficking hotspots in the country yet the cause has found a champion in Regional Trial Court prosecutor Ruth Bernabe.

“Human trafficking is modern slavery though it is not talked about much in our institutions, even in the media and no in-depth discussions on it,” Bernabe told VERA Files.

She said taking up the cause of abused women and children as a trial prosecutor of the Regional Family Trial Court of Baguio City for the past 10 years has shaped and deeply affected her advocacy.

Bernabe conducts an average of 50 lectures a year, speaking in various venues around the country to get one important message out—stop human trafficking. She does this while performing her duties as an Assistant City Prosecutor in Baguio City.

Her lectures focus on the laws surrounding human trafficking that include Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, a law that which turned 11 last May 26. She also discusses RA 10364 or the expanded anti-trafficking law and the anti-violence against women and children act or the R.A. 9262, among others.

Human trafficking is the third most “lucrative” illegal trade worldwide, after firearms and the drug trade, Bernabe said. The country is also one of the most vulnerable to human trafficking given the vast number of overseas Filipino workers, but there are also trafficking violations locally, she added.

Beginnings

Bernabe is an accounting graduate of Saint Louis University in Baguio City. She went on to study law in the same school and became a member of the bar in April 1995. It was her mother, the late Baguio City assistant prosecutor Estrellita Bernabe, who inspired her to become a lawyer.

She started out as a junior partner at the E.M. Avila Law Office that handled the 1997 case of overseas Filipino worker Elyrose Miguel, a victim of organ harvesting by her employers in Taiwan. No convictions were made on the case.

She was also a former legal officer for the Parole and Probation Administration- Cordillera Administrative Region and prosecutor of La Union.

Bernabe’s knowledge and passion to pursue human trafficking cases grew even more when she was chosen, along with four other Filipinos, to take part in the international training on trafficking through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the United States in March 2012.

She said the one-month training inspired her all the more to continue her advocacy on the local level. “It was unexpected to be chosen as part of the program,” she related. Though the US setting is different from the Philippines’ she said she applies what she can adapt from how they handle trafficking cases because she wants “to make a difference.”

Bernabe has since become a member of the Philippines Against Child Trafficking (PACT), Northern Luzon PACT Coordinator, Cordillera Regional Anti Trafficking in Person and Violence against Women and their Children Committee (CRIACAT- VAWC), and the Anti Child Abuse Network (ACAN).

Deal with victims gently

Bernabe is tough, often perceived as astig by those who meet her for the first time, but she is gentle when it comes to dealing with the victims. “You have to know how to deal with the victims, especially the kids, and to let them know that you are there to help them,” she said.

Her first case in 2007, which is still pending in court, gave her the motivation to continue.

Many other cases followed and through all that she experienced being harassed by the accused, dealt with the bureaucracy of some agencies and was at the receiving end of SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

The suits were dismissed for lack of merit but they served to fuel her passion to pursue the cases even more, to bring justice to the victims and convictions to the perpetrators.

A firm believer of the adage that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ she endeavors to resolve cases swiftly, but without sacrificing their merits. A prosecutor is given 30-45 cases to resolve in a day, if the case is dismissible, she would resolve it within the day, she said.

Since the implementation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, not one of the cases filed in Baguio has been decided.

The Baguio City Prosecutor’s office currently handles 30 TIP cases in the regional trial court. Of the 30, only four are active and they involve child trafficking; one of them is being handled by Bernabe.

Most of the other cases involving sexual exploitation have suffered delays in the prosecution because the accused are still at large.

Forced labor another form of trafficking

People often equate human trafficking only with sexual exploitation of the victims, not knowing that forced labor is also a form of trafficking, Bernabe pointed out. The media and even law enforcement operations like police raids focus on the element of sexual exploitation. Perhaps victims can be encouraged to file cases if they understood that forced labor is also a form of human trafficking, she explained.

She related the case of the eight men from Abra, who were intercepted in Tawi-Tawi in 2011. When they were questioned, they told the enforcers they were going to attend a wedding but when pressed further, they could not support their alibi.

They were brought home, but no TIP cases were filed. “That could be a potential trafficking case, if only they were willing to speak about what happened.”

Tawi-Tawi is a known exit and entry point for trafficking victims going to and from Malaysia.

One of the difficulties in prosecuting human trafficking cases is the unwillingness of the victims to pursue the cases till the end, Bernabe said. In many instances, the accused succeed in persuading them to drop the case, usually through an offer of money to their families.

This is why it is important for victims to have informed consent, she stressed. They should be able to understand the pros and cons of filing a case and then letting them decide whether to file a case or not. “That is if there are no eyewitnesses,” she said. If there are other pieces of evidence that can prove human trafficking, she added, then the case will proceed.

Corruption, she admitted, is another reason many of the cases do not prosper.

Training for law enforcers

Most of the time evidence is also consciously or unconsciously tampered with or mishandled by law enforcers during operations or investigation, making it inadmissible in court. This is probably the reason the Philippines still is testimony-based when other countries are already evidence-based, Bernabe said.

“You have to remember, any doubt as to the presentation of the evidence should be in favor of the accused. Kaya mahirap ang trabahong prosecution (that’s why prosecution is difficult) because you have to prove the elements and any doubt will have to be resolved in favor to the accused.”

May butas lang ang kaso mo—acquittal, madi-dismiss iyong kaso (If your case is not airtight then there will be acquittal and the case is dismissed),” she stated.

This is why regular training is needed by the various law enforcement agencies especially in the area of investigation, she added. The proper handling of evidence is another area that needs attention, citing the continued bungling by police of evidence.

The frequent reshuffling of the police in a given area also affects their performance, Bernabe explained, saying this can be addressed if a TIP task force is set up per province. Right now there are small, loose groups, thus institutionalizing them per province will greatly help curb trafficking.

Also, she lamented the lack of zeal of some local police stations in going after trafficking cases. “Not all police stations have the advocacy, some may have but in name only. Some implement the program but there is no sustainability.”

It is Bernabe’s dedication that keeps her going. “I get calls even at 12 midnight when the police need my signature for an arrest,” she said.

Some areas like to make arrests on Fridays because prosecutors will not be around at the weekend, Bernabe said, but their office does it differently. “We are always on call,” said the self-confessed workaholic.

To de-stress, she stays at home and sanitizes the whole house. Or she watches a movie. But ultimately this: “I love doing my advocacy work, I consider that a break,” she beamed.—with a report from April Anne Benjamin

(This story is part of VERA Files’ project Human Trafficking Casewatch supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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