By Rey Panaligan
The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that members of indigenous cultural communities cannot invoke their own customary laws and practices to evade prosecution for criminal offenses filed before regular courts of law.
In a decision written by Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor F. Leonen, the SC said that Republic Act No. 8371, the 1997 Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), does not strip the courts of jurisdiction over criminal cases filed against indigenous people.
“Nowhere in the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act does it state that courts of law are to abandon jurisdiction over criminal proceedings in favor of mechanisms applying customary laws,” the SC said.
It said IPRA limits the indigenous people’s “right to use their own commonly accepted justice systems, conflict resolution institutions, peace building processes or mechanisms and other customary laws and practices.”
It pointed out that the provision in the law under Section 15 explicitly states that this right is applicable only “within their respective communities” and only for as long as it is “compatible with the national legal system and with internationally recognized human rights.”
It added that Section 65 of IPRA is qualified by Section 15 with respect to dispensing justice, resolving conflicts, and peace-building and only to the extent that such are in harmony with the national legal system.
“A set of customary laws and practices is effective only within the confines of the specific indigenous cultural community that adopted and adheres to it,” the SC stressed.
With the ruling, the SC denied the petition filed by Roderick Sumatra, known as Ha Datu Tawahig as tribal chieftain of Higaonon Tribe, who wanted the Cebu Regional Trial Court (RTC) to honor the 2007 dismissal of his rape case by the Dadantulan Tribal court.
The tribal court had cleared Sumatra of liabilities – civil, criminal and administrative – in the rape charges filed against him.
Sumatra told the SC that Section 65 of IPRA provides: “when disputes involve Indigenous Cultural Communities-Indigenous Peoples (ICCs-IPs), customary laws and practices shall be used to resolve the dispute.”
In denying the petition, the SC said that with the passage of the 1987 Constitution, the IPRA was adopted in recognition that indigenous peoples have been “resistant to political, social, and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and cultures, and became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.”
It pointed out that among IPRA’s provisions on self-governance and empowerment is Section 15 which states: “The ICCs/IPs shall have the right to use their own commonly accepted justice systems, conflict resolution institutions, peace-building processes or mechanisms and other customary laws and practices within their respective communities and as may be compatible with the national legal system and with internationally recognized human rights.”
But the SC stressed: “The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act does not compel courts of law to desist from taking cognizance of criminal cases involving indigenous peoples. It expresses no correlative rights and duties in support of petitioner’s cause. Thus, a writ of mandamus cannot be issued.”
With the denial of the petition, the Cebu RTC was ordered by the SC to proceed and resolve with dispatch the rape case filed against Sumatra.