By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Progressive groups and human rights lawyers were not at all surprised with the government’s “old tune” as the Philippine National Police presented a self-professed former member of the New People’s Army to red tag slain farmer Darwin Sulang at the Senate hearing yesterday, April 21, on the bloody Kidapawan dispersal.
A certain Charlie Pasco said Sulang used to be his comrade when both were members of the NPA. He claimed that the 22-year-old farmer was armed with a .38 caliber gun during the protest.
“I was very angry. I wanted to throw something at him. He was lying,” Darwin’s father Ebao Sulang told Bulatlat.
He added that it pains him that his son is being tagged as a member of NPA when their entire village and community know he is not.
“He is a very helpful son. He helps me farm and plant corn and banana,” he added.
During the hearing, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers assistant secretary general for legal services Ephraim Cortez said Pasco was in fact even in Digos City on March 29, two days before the bloody dispersal, to receive cash reward. He reportedly claimed P60,000 after he surrendered his M14 rifle.
“He is from the 39th Infantry Battalion and a rebel returnee. He had received money from the government. That poses a question to his statement. It bears no weight to the case. It is a paid testimony,” Cortez said in an interview.
At least two were killed and dozens others were injured when state security forces opened fired at the protesting farmers in Kidapawan City last April 1. Farmers, who came from various parts of North Cotabato, were demanding the release of 15,000 sacks of rice as their crops were destroyed due to months of dry spell.
All detained farmers were freed after posting bail. But Cortez said three are now in hiding after they learned that the police were hunting them down. Pol. Supt. Alexander Tagum denied this.
Tagum said he received an intelligence report from the 39th Infantry Battalion that there will be a protest, backed by local armed groups such as the NPA and the Moro National Liberation Front.
He added that it “took some time” to validate the information and did not immediately pass the intelligence report to a higher office.
On March 27, Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Evangelista said he received the intelligence report from the military and was told that protesters will “ransack” the National Food Authority’s office in Kidapawan City.
During the protest, Tagum said it was the chair of the crisis committee, no less than Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza, who ordered him to clear the highway, where the starving drought-hit farmers formed a barricade and blocked traffic.
In their respective testimonies, the police pinned the blame on the protesters, saying they fired at the police. Tagum even claimed that he never ordered to open fire at the protesting drought-hit farmers as firing of “warning shots” is not allowed by law.
Tagum said there is an eyewitness account that protesters had guns during the protest. He added that they were unable to find it when they served the search warrant as they were kept for three hours before entering the church compound, accusing farmers that it gave them ample time to hide the guns.
Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile asked, “Are you saying that the protesters killed themselves?”
Tagum answered, “That might be the case.”
Asked for a comment, 78-year-old Valentina Berden, one of the detained farmers recently freed on bail, belied that there were armed groups in the protest. She said, “It was them (the police) who were armed.”
She said she was taking a bath by the river when she heard gunshots. She hid but a police found her and told her to go with them as they were going to “feed them.”
Berden, along with six other elderly, is currently charged with direct assault. Sen. Allan Peter Cayetano asked the police if they have an eyewitness account of Berden assaulting their ranks. Tagum said they will check their records.
“I saw that someone was dead. But the police continued to fire at us,” farmer Arnel Takyawan, who sustained a gunshot wound in his left leg, said during the hearing.
He added that it was the police wearing a SWAT uniform stationed on top of the firetruck who fired at him.
Fatal gunshot wounds
Forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun said during the senate hearing that she was able to examine the remains of the two killed in Kidapawan dispersal. She said both sustained gunshot wounds.
“He must have bled massively,” Fortun said, referring to bystander Enrico Fabligar.
Fabligar sustained a single penetrating shot in the trunk. Fortun noted that his death certificate did not stipulate a manner of death, which she said should have been homicide. His death certificate instead states he died of “hypothermic shock,” and that he sustained a gunshot wound.
During her external examination, Fortun said she learned that a bullet was recovered from Fabligar’s remains. She was told that this was brought to the Scene of the Crime Operations (SOCO).
A representative from the SOCO later confirmed this before the Senate hearing. He said it came from an M16 rifle, which he added did not come from the ranks of the police.
Meanwhile, Fortun said she found it “curious” that only Sulang was subjected to what she referred to as a “useless” paraffin test, which was long debunked as conclusive proof in determining if one fired a gun. The police said the slain farmer was positive in the paraffin test.
Fortun said Sulang sustained gunshot wound in “almost the center” of his forehead.
Sulang’s death certificate states that he died of “cardiorespiratory arrest secondary to head injury due to mauling.”
On calamity funds
The National Food Authority’s regional office said they could not immediately provide rice for the protesting and starving farmers because it is “not their mandate” and that they do not have calamity fund.
Enrile said the NFA should have asked or “texted” President Aquino since his calamity fund is worth P38 billion ($821 million).
The NFA estimated that 15,000 sacks of rice could cost P17 million ($368,000), which Enrile said is a mere “fraction” to the president’s calamity funds.
Gov. Mendoza said the provincial government was prepared for the impact of El Niño, but added that their hands are tied to the processes involved in procuring rice. She said the rice are being paid for, and not given to local governments for free.
Meanwhile, the NFA said it has “more than sufficient” supply of rice even if El Niño will continue until July.
“May bigas naman pala e (There was rice after all),” the audience in the gallery reacted audibly.
Singer Aiza Seguerra, after the senate hearing, told Bulatlat that she witnessed how “mismanaged this government is.”
“What struck me the most is how the police could lie through their teeth. In my opinion, they are not telling the truth. I’m an artist and I’m observing their actions. They would stand by what they say even if they have already reached a dead end,” she said.
Seguerra said it did not make sense for farmers to shoot people among their ranks.
“Wag niyo kami gawing tanga,” she quipped.
Seguerra and wife Liza Diño attended the senate hearing yesterday. Both led the fundraising campaign for farmers to post bail, which amounted to P576,200, after the government prosecutor opposed their bail reduction plea to $43 for each detained farmer.
Both Enrile and Pimentel noted the absence of cabinet secretaries in yesterday’s Senate hearing despite their invitations.
Enrile expressed disgust for their absence and said these cabinet officials also failed to attend the Davao hearing last April 7 because they were in Manila. Yesterday, he said cabinet officials were not able to attend the hearing because they were in various separate provinces.
Among the invited cabinet officials are: Social Wefare and Development Sec. Dinky Soliman, Budget Sec. Florencio Abad, and Agriculture Sec. Prospero Alcala.
Enrile said he wanted to know how cabinet officials acted on the information and if they relayed it to President Aquino. He repeatedly said that the issue was not of region’s concern alone but the entire country.
“The only person who can solve the problem is the one sitting in Malacañang,” he quipped, adding that Aquino failed to use his power to intervene on the situation.
Aquino had remained silent after the bloody dispersal. A week later, he broke his silence and said that he was “unaware” of the farmers’ protest for rice and was sick at the time.
Pimentel referred to their absences as “boycott.”
Sotto told the media he suggested that the committee should issue a strongly-worded invitation to the cabinet officials.