Reign of Impunity

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Posted by Bulatlat

The vital flaw which undermines the utility of much of the (Philippine) judicial system is the problem of virtual impunity that prevails. This, in turn, is built upon the rampant problem of witness vulnerability. The present message is that if you want to preserve your life expectancy, don’t act as a witness in a criminal prosecution for killing… In a relatively poor society, in which there is heavy dependence on community and very limited real geographical mobility, witnesses are uniquely vulnerable when the forces accused of killings are all too often those, or are linked to those, who are charged with ensuring their security.

— UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston

Siche Bustamante-Gandinao, a 56 year-old farmer, married with six children, daughter-in-law of slain Bayan Muna–Misamis Oriental provincial chairperson Dalmacio “Tatay Daki” Gandinao, herself a member of Bayan Muna and the Misamis Oriental Farmers Association, and a witness presented to UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston last February, was shot dead on 12 March by an unidentified assailant as she walked home after harvesting crops with her husband and children. The place of the incident was only 50 meters away from an army detachment; the assailant reportedly fled in its direction.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, was quick to blame the New People’s Army (NPA) as responsible for the assassination: he claimed that Mrs. Gandinao had been cooperating with the military and was thereby targeted by the NPA for liquidation. He did not elaborate nor offer any proof of this claim.

The AFP has indeed made a habit of blaming any and all extrajudicial killings of activists on the communist-led guerilla army. Not only is the AFP “in denial”, as Mr. Alston pointed out, of any military/police involvement in the alarming spate of killings, Mrs. Arroyo’s generals have a
ready culprit and so their response is only a press release away.

How can the AFP spokesperson say that Mrs. Gandinao has been cooperating with the military when just weeks before she had lost her father-in-law to killers whom the family suspect to be members of military-directed death squads? She had testified, at great risk to her own life, in a closed-door hearing conducted by Mr. Alston during his visit to Cagayan de Oro. Mrs. Gandinao gave the names of the men who had been casing Tatay Daki’s house days before he was murdered. She also said her father-in-law had warned her that she was in the AFP “order of battle” together with her sister, Divina Bustamante-Tina, and that this meant the two of them were already on the military’s “hit list”.

The kind of people who would malign a dead woman without batting an eyelash is the same kind who can kill without batting an eyelash. The callous disregard for the honor and dignity of a victim of extrajudicial killings, brazenly discarding the facts and turning the truth on its head, says it all for the AFP. That the Commander-in-Chief allows the military to repeat this outrageously fictitious line ad nauseam despite the clear findings of her own investigative body, the Melo commission, says it all for the Arroyo administration.

The killing of yet another witness to the extrajudicial killing of activists underscores the extreme vulnerability of such courageous yet apparently foolhardy individuals. What immediately comes to mind is the case of Marcelino “Ka Marcing” Beltran, president of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Tarlac and a survivor-witness of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of November 2004 who was gunned down in his own home.

As I wrote back then, when Ka Marcing testified before a fact finding mission three days before his cold-blooded murder, “(h)e was articulate, fearless, agitated, his words tumbling from his mouth as he narrated how he miraculously escaped the hail of bullets even as he helped carry the dying and the wounded to safety, away from the bloodthirsty police, military and private security forces who relentlessly pursued the fleeing strikers and rallyists with their guns, truncheons and boots.”

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