“Here we have a political climate blanketed by fear and submission, and a system that promotes such.” Karapatan
By RITCHE T. SALGADO
DUMAGUETE CITY — Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon of June 10, 2009, three gunshots echoed in a quiet street of Dumaguete City, a place reputed as the City of Gentle People.
In an instant, Fermin Lorico, 52, a farmer activist, was killed. He was on his way to a meeting after attending an otherwise successful anti-charter change rally in the city.
Lorico’s murder is just one of the many human rights cases in Negros Oriental that remains unsolved.
In 2009 alone, Karapatan recorded 95 cases of abuse, including five extrajudicial killings, four cases of torture, and 22 cases of various forms of harassment, among others. This does not include cases from previous years, which, up until today remains unsolved.
Karapatan is an independent human rights watchdog critical of government abuses, especially those committed by military personnel against the disadvantaged sectors of society like farmers and the urban poor.
The most recent case of abuse recorded by Karapatan against farmers in Negros Oriental was the burning of two houses in Sitio Avocado, Barangay Talalac, Sta. Catalina last June 2011. The people who responded to the incident were slapped with criminal charges that could land them in jail for six months and fined with up to 5,000 pesos ($ 115.45).
Task Force Lorico
The gruesome murder of Lorico in the heart of the city prompted then City Mayor Agustin Ramon M. Perdices to direct the city police into forming a task force. Two years after, Lorico’s family has yet to find justice.
Task Force Lorico boasted of an elite group of individuals coming from the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, the Scene of the Crime Operatives, and investigation and intelligence personnel from the city and provincial headquarters of the Philippine National Police. But these were empty boasts as no arrests were made albeit leads that would point to any suspect to the killing.
P/Insp Philippedes Sillero, investigation officer of the Dumaguete City Police Office, confirmed this.
“I thought that case was already closed,” Sillero said when asked by Bulatlat.com for an update. He admitted that since he returned to the post last September he is no longer up to date on the case.
Sillero headed the investigation of the case in 2009 until late last year, when he was assigned to another post for promotion.
Juliet Ragay, a colleague of Lorico in the local farmers group Kaugmaon, questioned the sincerity of the Dumaguete police in solving the case.
Ragay currently chairs a local peasant women’s group called Babayeng Negrense Isulong ang Kalingkawasan (Banika-Amihan) and replaced Lorico as member of the board of trustees of the Central Visayas Farmers Development Center.
Ragay claimed that no investigation was ever conducted, saying that not even the residents in the area where Lorico was killed were questioned, of which, Sillero denied, saying that they even went to Bayawan City to talk with the victim’s family.
“Every time we ask them for an update on the case, they would ask us (Kaugmaon-KMP and Karapatan) to produce witnesses so that they can pursue the investigation,” Ragay added.
For the police, it is the family and Lorico’s colleagues who are not interested to see the case resolved.
“It seems that the family itself is not interested in solving the case. We even had to initiate (the investigation) and convince his colleagues to speak out because they are the ones who saw what happened,” Sillero said.
“That is their job, to investigate the case,” said Karapatan’s Jose Luis Blanco, adding that the police should not solely depend on witnesses as source of information.
Sillero admitted to asking Lorico’s group to produce a witness, arguing that it was they who witnessed the crime. However, Sillero said the group was unable to produce any witness.
When Sillero was asked about the physical evidence on the killing: “With the SOCO (Scene of the Crime Operative), I do not know what their findings are. They conducted a separate investigation.”
He admitted that SOCO would usually give them a copy of their findings, to be included in the investigation’s report. However, he also prompted Bulatlat.com to direct questions of physical evidence to SOCO, adding, “I doubt if the people who were assigned to the case are still there,” while reflecting the familiar frustration with cases shelved resulting from constant personnel transfers and the lack of proper endorsement.
“It’s a cold case,” Blanco said. “There is not a whiff of an update on the case.”
Suspect turned witness
In Guihulngan City, 89 kilometers north of Dumaguete City, another case of killing is also getting the cold shoulder from law enforcement agencies.
Peasant leader Rene “Toto” Quirante, a colleague of Lorico in Kaugmaon, was killed at around 2 am of October 1, 2010, allegedly by members of the Philippine Army and its paramilitary groups.
When the Guihulngan City courts issued an arrest warrant for a certain Leonel Librado in February this year, the family was hopeful that justice would be served.
Since then, however, no arrests were made because apparently Librado could not be located. But in April, Librado was produced by the 11th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army not to be surrendered to the police but to witness against Rogina Quilop who is facing charges of arson in San Carlos City.
Despite the existing warrant of arrest, Librado was never arrested, which enraged Quirante’s family.
“The arrest warrant was never served to Librado,” said Blanco. Because of this, Blanco’s group together with the family of Quirante picketed the police station of Guihulngan City, demanding for Librado’s arrest.
Blanco said the Guihulngan City Police Office claimed that they tried to serve the arrest warrant allegedly at the camp of the 11th IB PA, where Librado has sought refuge. They were not allowed in, and the Philippine Army categorically denied that Librado was staying in their camp.
In September 2011, again, Librado was seen at an operation of the Philippine Army in Planas, Guihulngan City. This was reported to the police, who refused to go to the area claiming that the information was not accurate.
The police asked Karapatan and Quirante’s family that if they would have leads on the whereabouts of Librado that they be sent a message immediately.
“It seems that now, we are the police,” Blanco said.
Blanco revealed that Karapatan, together with KMP, is in the process of forming Task Force Quirante, not just to focus on the arrest of Librado but also to demand from government to surface people suspected of harassing farmers in the countryside.
“We are calling on the State to be accountable on the prosecution of these cases so that the culture of fear in the countryside, particularly in Guihulngan City, would end,” Blanco said.
Ordinance No. 5
The apparent lack of sincerity on the part of government to solve cases targeting members of progressive organizations, however, is the least of the problems facing independent human rights and development workers in the province.
In December 2008, the provincial board of Negros Oriental passed Resolution 1026 and Ordinance No. 5 to regulate outreach activities in the countryside of the province. The board’s justification for the measure was the death of Rachelle Mae Palang.
Palang was killed by military personnel who accused her of being e a member of the Maoist New People’s Army. She was fresh from college and just got her license as a nurse at the time when she was killed.
The measure was sponsored by then board members Melimore Saycon and Roel R. Degamo. The latter is now the governor of the province.
“We must take a look at this ordinance in the context of the time,” said lawyer Alfonso M. Cinco IV, vice president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL).
Cinco said the purpose of the ordinance, which is to protect civilians in war-torn areas, is not in consonance with the means by which this purpose is to be achieved. Instead, he said, what the ordinance does is prevent humanitarian missions in areas identified by the military as being affected by the government’s war against the communist insurgents. This hinders the delivery of social services to areas that government has neglected, or is unable to serve due to limited resources.
Cinco explained that 2008 was the height of Oplan Bantay Laya II (OBL2) of Arroyo, the purpose of which is to defeat the insurgency by 2010. He added that one of the tactics used at the time was to launch legal offensives against legal personalities and organizations.
“The cases were aimed at neutralizing the mass movement,” he said.
Last June, Blanco went to Avocado to investigate the burning of the houses of two leaders of a progressive farmers’ organization in the area, allegedly by members of the 79th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.
In October 5, Blanco was surprised when a colleague, Manuel Bentillo, who happened to be in the courthouse to face charges for violating Ordinance No. 5, was told by court officials that the former also has the same summon in the same court.
Another human rights worker who was accused of violating the ordinance is Vimarie Arcilla, information officer for Karapatan Central Visayas.
According to Cinco, these cases were filed by the military.
“It seemed that the military is more interested with the ordinance than the LGUs concerned,” he said.
These recent cases prompted non-government organizations and church groups in the province to revisit its opposition to the ordinance.
“We thought that this ordinance was already suspended,” said Cinco referring to a move by the provincial board to put the implementation of the ordinance on hold while it is being reviewed, when non-government organizations in the province first lobbied for the review of the ordinance in 2009.
Back then, several questions were raised including the lack of proper consultation with concerned groups and individuals.
Although Saycon insisted that invitations were sent to groups who might be affected by the ordinance, including the social action desk of different religious groups, NegOrNet president Msgr. Merlin Logronio of the Diocese of Dumaguete, however, said no such invitation reached his office.
“We were not informed and we never knew about the public hearing (on the ordinance) which regulates outreach activities thru medical missions and fact finding missions in the countryside of our province,” Logronio said when his group appeared before the provincial board last July 2, 2009 to air their opinion on the said ordinance.
The suspension, however, did not take effect and no action was taken by the provincial board after the said meeting.
Karapatan believes that with all these government measures in place to protect an otherwise guilty individual it would be hard for victims of human rights abuses to get the justice that they are seeking.
Blanco said he fears that there would be more disappearances and more killings in a city that is ironically being promoted to tourists and visitors for its peacefulness and calm atmosphere.
“We are living in a city that is deceptively peaceful, but if you take a closer look at the backstreets and listen carefully to the whispers of the locals, you will hear and see the stain that is becoming more and more apparent,” Blanco said.