By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
“Cases of extrajudicial killings need to be solved, not just identify the perpetrators but have them captured and sent to jail.”
This was Noynoy Aquino’s statement in a meeting with European Union ambassadors just a few weeks before being elected president last year.
One would have expected, or at least hoped, that under President Aquino’s watch, extrajudicial killings (EJK) and enforced disappearances (ED) which totaled 1,412 documented cases under Gloria Arroyo’s nine-year regime, and drew international condemnation mainly in Europe and in the United Nations would have become nightmares of the past.
Sadly, people today continue to be killed and disappear (although relatively not as many and as frequently as before).
In his first state-of-the-nation address on July 26, President Aquino appeared set to make good on his statement (March 31, 2010) quoted above. Three of the six EJK cases that happened in the first three weeks of his administration had been solved, he said, and the other three cases would be solved soon.
Since then, however, he hasn’t spoken again on the matter. Not one of the three supposedly solved EJK cases he cited has resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators. The first of the three was the killing on July 5 in Kalibo, Aklan, of Councilor Fernando Baldomero, Bayan Muna provincial chair who won reelection under the Liberal Party banner.
Still there has been one positive turn, which – trying not to be “negative” all the time I wrote about in this column on October 2, 2010.
This was the filing of a murder charge against two army soldiers who were arrested by the Kabangkalan police on board a motorcycle shortly after they allegedly shot dead Benjamin Bayles, a parish worker of the Philippine Independent Church and Bayan Muna coordinator, along the highway in Himamaylan City on June 4, 2010.
The murder charge was filed after PIC Bishop Filomeno Ang of Negros Occidental wrote to President Aquino disclosing his detailed findings, including the true identities of the soldiers and the alleged attempts of their commanding officer, Col. Ricardo Bayhon, to cover up their involvement in the crime.
I have been monitoring this case as a breakthrough in the struggle to end impunity on extrajudicial killings. The latest hearing at the Himamaylan regional trial court, which began on October 12, 2010, was last March 30. Two prosecution witnesses have been presented, one already cross-examined. The next hearing will be on June 9, when the two handguns allegedly used in the murder, still held by the PNP Region 6 crime laboratory, are expected to be presented as evidence.
When I attended the pre-trial hearing in October, the two accused — Private 1st Class Reygine Laus and PFC Ronnie Caurino — were presented in court with their faces covered, save for their eyes. As I looked intently at them, they evaded eye contact with me. During the hearing last March 23, before the first prosecution witness testified, Judge Nilo M. Sarsaba ordered the accused to remove their “masks” as had been asked earlier by the private prosecutors from the Public Interest Law Center and National Union of People’s Lawyers.
With the filing last week of criminal charges against retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. and other military officers on the enforced disappearances of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno in 2006, the human rights community hopes that more cases will follow in court. And that the perpetrators will be successfully prosecuted and sent to jail.
In the first nine months of the P-Noy government, the human rights alliance Karapatan has already documented 45 murders and five abductions of political activists.
Last month two more cases were reported on two successive days, on April 11 and 12, one of them in Luzon and the other in Mindanao. The first murder victim was Kenneth Reyes, 28, chair of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan in Batangas; the second was Santos V. Manrique, 52, chair of a coalition of people’s organizations defending the environment, land rights, and food security in the mining town of Pantukan in Compostela Valley.
In P-Noy’s first six months in office there were 31 such killings and four disappearances, twice more than the 18 EJKs and one ED in the last six months of Gloria Arroyo’s term. Under Arroyo’s counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, political activists were lumped together with those engaged in armed struggle as “enemies of the state” targeted for physical elimination.
Instead of ending it at once, P-Noy’s choice was to extend Oplan Bantay Laya until December 31, 2010; the killings and disappearances increased. On January 1 his administration began implementing its own Internal Peace and Security Plan called “Oplan Bayanihan”; and 16 more activists were killed.
No wonder Karapatan laments: “Why is it difficult to ascertain when Oplan Bantay Laya ends and Oplan Bayanihan begins? Is it because one is no different from the other, except for different names and the latter’s use of deceptive words like ‘respectful of human rights,’ ‘development-oriented activities,’ and ‘peace’?”