“The horrific nature and extent of the victims’ wounds belie any claim that the force used against them was – by any stretch of the imagination – reasonable, and erodes the Philippine National Police’s credibility as to its claim that the killings were carried out under justifiable circumstances.”
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – – A 53-member national fact-finding mission (NFFM) found state security forces involved in the March 30 operations in Negros Oriental liable for murder, theft and other rights abuses.
In its initial report sent to Bulatlat, the NFFM led by Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said that eyewitnesses “clearly and categorically attested that what happened on March 30 were summary executions.”
The report revealed that all the 14 farmers killed in Canlaon City, Manjuyod and Sta. Catalina were unarmed and were already under the custody and control of state security forces when they were killed.
The mission underscored the fact that members of the raiding teams were in full battle gear, with their faces and their nameplates covered during the operations.
The NFFM said the use of deadly force was premeditated. Except for one, the victims were shot multiple times. The report cited the following:
• Valentin Acabal was shot in his genital area and his right thigh was riddled with bullets it was completely destroyed.
• Ismael Avelino’s torso had at least eight gunshots that his intestines burst out of his stomach
• Edgardo Avelino was shot twice in the chest and once in the center of the forehead
• Steve Arapoc was shot both in his back and chest while he was lying on the floor
“The horrific nature and extent of the victims’ wounds belie any claim that the force used against them was – by any stretch of the imagination – reasonable, and erodes the PNP’s credibility as to its claim that the killings were carried out under justifiable circumstances,” the report read.
The NFFM said the raiding teams were also the ones who dragged the bodies of the victims out of the crime scenes. “Such disturbance of a crime scene is strictly prohibited as it removes potential evidence of foul play,” the report read.
The NFFM thus deemed that the removal of the bodies was “an effort to conceal the crimes committed.”
Replete with irregularities
The NFFM said the search warrants issued against the victims “were nothing more than a pretext for the conduct of the operation.”
In a press conference held April 8 in Bacolod City and streamed live on Facebook, Karapatan legal counsel Maria Sol Taule pointed out irregularities in the conduct of police operations.
The team found out that copies of search warrants were either given to the victims’ families only after the killings took place or such copies were never provided at all.
The NFFM noted the following irregularities in the search warrants:
– All were issued by a single judge, Judge Soliver C. Peras of Branch 10 Regional Trial Court of Cebu City. Standard court procedure requires applications for search warrants to be filed with the trial court which has jurisdiction over the territory where the crime is being committed.
– Search warrants fail to describe the places to be searched with sufficient particularity, such as sketches or other details that should confine the search to a limited location. This violates a procedural requirement that search warrants must particularly describe the place to be searched.
– The search warrant against one of those arrested in Manjuyod, Nestor Kadusale, used false information. Police claimed that they conducted the surveillance and confirmed Kadusale’s possession of loose firearms on March 14, 2019, but records show that the request for Firearm Holder Verification filed with Camp Crame in Quezon City was made on March 8, six days before the actual surveillance.
The NFFM team also said that the raiding teams barged into the victims’ homes without giving prior announcement as to their presence and their intention to enforce the search warrants. The NFFM said this was a violation of an established rule that a law-enforcement officer may break into a house to execute the warrant only if he refused admittance to the place after giving notice of his purpose and authority.
Operatives also ordered the occupants to leave their houses as they supposedly searched the different rooms. The report said that both the rules of criminal procedure and the Philippine National Police’s operational rules strictly prohibit the conduct of a search of a house, room, or any other premises except in the presence of the lawful occupant, a member of his family or, in the absence of the latter, two witnesses of sufficient age and discretion residing in the same locality.
“With all the victims’ family members kept outside the premises, and the barangay officials arriving only hours after the raid and the purported search, the operatives involved therein were in clear breach of the aforementioned rules,” the report said.
Planting of evidence
The NFFM said that inventories of items allegedly confiscated from the victims’ houses were signed by barangay officials. Eyewitnesses, however, testified that these officials arrived only hours after the raid and the killings.
The victims’ family members also recounted that they were made to sign the same inventories. “These signatures, however, were procured under the most intimidating and coercive of circumstances, with dozens of masked men carrying high-powered firearms present, without the assistance of local officials or lawyers, after the raiding teams had carried out the executions, and with the family members fearing for their own lives,” the report said.
The NFFM also noted inconsistencies in the search warrants used against the victims and the inventories of items allegedly confiscated from the houses of those killed and arrested. For instance, the search warrant against Steve Arapoc claimed that he was in possession of one (1) .45 caliber pistol; yet, the raiding team claimed they found one (1) .38 caliber pistol.
Theft, other abuses
The NFFM also found out that operatives stole money and valuables in the total amount of P167,300 from the families of Sonny Palagtiw, Valentin Acabal, Edgardo Avelino, Armogena Caballero and Steve Arapoc.
The victims’ family members were also subjected to physical abuse and the unnecessary use of force, the NFFM said.
Arapoc’s younger brother, Mc Khillif Jun, was assaulted and handcuffed while his sister, Keren Arapoc, was harassed when a male member of the raiding team profusely frisked her entire body.
The NFFM also lamented the trauma inflicted on family members, especially minors.
• Franklin Lariosa’s four-year-old son was right beside him when he was shot and killed by the raiding team.
• Edgardo Avelino’s 16-year-old daughter suffered a nervous breakdown after the incident.
• Ismael Avelino’s children, aged ten and five years old were forced out of the room just before their father was shot multiple times while lying in his bed.
• Three of Steve Arapoc’s 10 siblings – aged 14, 10, and 6 – were also in the house when Arapoc was shot several times while lying in the living room.
Lucia Francisco of Gabriela, a member of the NFFM, said that the trauma being experienced by the victims’ families, especially the children, is so deep. “What they need now is psycho-social therapy,” she said during the press conference.
Those arrested, meanwhile, were not informed of their rights as cited in Miranda doctrine.
Danilo Ramos, KMP chairperson, called for justice for the victims. He said that all those involved in the March 30 operations dubbed as Operation Sauron must be held accountable.
The NFFM noted that Oplan Sauron has killed a total of 21 individuals killed in several Negros Oriental towns since December 2018.
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said these joint police and military operations conducted under the guise of anti-criminality are directed against individuals who are members of mass organizations.
The NFFM noted that the victims were branded as New People’s Army fighters or supporters. It said that the March 30 operations were part of the implementation of President Duterte’s Executive Order 70 establishing a whole-of-nation approach in ending local insurgency and the Memorandum Order 32 placing Negros Island, Bicol, and Samar, under the “state of emergency.”