12 years after death: Justice Still Eludes Human Rights Leader

The frustrating quest for justice for Christopher Batan’s death reflects the justice system in the country: It works at a snail’s pace and you don’t even know if it is headed to the right direction. Twelve years since his death, Chris’ family, friends and tribe mates are still waiting for full justice.

BY ARTHUR L. ALLAD-IW
Northern Dispatch

Posted by Bulatlat.com

BAGUIO CITY – I first visited Lias, a barangay (village) of Barlig, in the early 1980s. The i-Lias are among the groups of the Balangao tribe, the indigenous people in the municipalities of Barlig, Natonin, and Paracelis, located in the eastern part of Mountain Province (394 kms north of Manila).

Elders from Aplay (from the Kankanaey areas near the Chico River) called biyahero or travelers who frequently visited the area to buy antique jars, told me that the i-Lias are among the most feared in the eastern part of the province. They were brave warriors, as proven, they say, by the shape of the community in maps, which seemed like the tip of a spear that hit a mountainside. Interpreted by the men-abig (elders who predict future events), Lias’ physical formation shows that they can never be defeated in tribal wars.

I visited Lias again in 1993, more than a decade after, to witness the burial of human rights activist and friend, Christopher Lognason Batan. Following the tribe’s tradition, Chris was given a warrior’s burial. He was placed in a chalipoy (cemetery) specially designated for murdered members of the tribe. He wore a wanes (g-string) like any other fallen tribal warrior.

His coffin was not covered and he was buried facing east. “The sun will light his way and help his tribe members seek justice for his death,” explained his kailyan (tribe mate).

Before the burial, the tribe performed a ritual to seek justice for his killing. In the ritual, the nearest paternal relatives of Chris tried to let an egg stand without any support. If they failed, Chris’ maternal relatives would try next. If it would still be a failure, then the members of the community would also try to do the task. The ritual is done to determine who among the relatives or tribe mates will lead the mangayaw (revenge).

Normally in such cases, revenge would have followed immediately after the burial. Performance of the necessary rituals by the tribe would then follow. However, Chris’ family requested that the government justice system be given a chance to work.

Knowing Chris

Chris was the fourth of eight children of a peasant couple from Lias. He came to Baguio City in 1987 to study. While enrolled as a Political Science student at the Baguio Colleges Foundation (BCF), now University of the Cordilleras (UC), he tried to augment his meager allowance by selling newspapers at the Igorot Park. He still managed to join extra-curricular activities with his fellow youth from the Cordillera provinces.

In 1987, Chris was among the youth leaders of the Progressive Igorots for Social Action (PIGSA). That was when I met him. He was among the organization’s politically matured educators capable of discussing national issues, particularly the problems of the Cordillera people.

He too was a culturati. Playing the gongs with just two or three companions, Chris and his group masterfully played the eagle dance, a popular dance of the Balangao tribe.

Chris tried to take up Law at the St. Louis University (SLU), but financial problems forced him to stop.
Commitment to social change

After graduating in 1990, Chris joined the Mining Communities Development Center (MCDC) which provides service to Itogon communities. He was among the community organizers conducting education and training among the residents, anchoring on environmental rights at a time when the open-pit mining was threatening the people’s livelihood. He devoted much of his time to NGO work.

Deciding to be nearer his family in Lias, which is more or less 50 kilometers away from Bontoc proper, he joined the Mountain Province unit of the human rights group Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) in 1992.

On February 23, 1993, he went with Mila Fanaang and Anglican Priest Eduardo Solang to Betwagan, Sadanga, Mountain Province to document human rights cases committed during the martial law era which were to be included in a class suit against former President Ferdinand Marcos.

That his human rights advocacy brought him threats did not stop him. While approaching the Betwagan Village, at least five members of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu) fired at his group, hitting Chris at the hip. A Cafgu member came nearer for another shot to ensure his death. Chris’s promising young life was cut short at 25 years by a state-supported paramilitary group.

A murder case was filed in Bontoc against the Betwagan CAFGUs. But since the bodong (peace pact) between Betwagan and Lias was severed due to the incident, the conflict triggered the transfer of the case to Baguio City upon approval by the Supreme Court.

Years after the killing, an arrest was finally made – Agustin Agpawan was thrown behind bars. The Regional Trial Court (Branch 59) in Baguio convicted him for the conspiracy to commit murder. Ten years after the murder, another accused, Bonifacio Chumacog, was arrested and convicted on June 29, 2004. The other three Cafgu members – Mateo Fanao, Kengeb Fayno and Panyong Rongan – are still at large. According to another Cafgu member under the Alpha Company of the 77th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army-Bontoc, the suspects remain scot-free despite the warrant issued by the court.

The frustrating quest for justice for Christopher Batan’s death reflects the justice system in the country: It works at a snail’s pace and you don’t even know if it is headed to the right direction. Twelve years since his death, his family, friends and tribe mates are still waiting for full justice. (Bulatlat.com)

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