By Visayas Today
“I am begging our state forces, the police and military personnel, these killings must end.”
This was the earnest appeal Wednesday by San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza as controversy continues to hound the March 30 deaths in Negros Oriental of 14 men during a police operation that was initially dubbed an anti-crime drive but was later acknowledged to be targeted against alleged communist rebels.
Alminaza’s statement was read by Fr. Eduardo Laude, director for pastoral management of the San Carlos diocese, who represented the prelate at the Wednesday Roundtable at Lido hosted by journalist Melo Acuna, which discussed the Negros Oriental killings.
The bishop was in Cebu City for the launching of a movement that will campaign for an end to killings and other rights violations.
“This is very personal on my part,” Alminaza said in his statement.
“Fourteen people of our island perished in this barbaric operation. They are part of my flock, their deaths pierced my heart with pain,” he added.
“I share the collective suffering of the many families left by the barbaric arrogance of our state forces,” the bishop said.
“We are demanding peace based on justice,” he said.
In all, said Alminaza, 69 persons have died in what are believed to be politically motivated killings, a substantial number of these happening in his diocese in less than half a year in what he called a “continuing injustice.”
In October 20 last year, nine persons were massacred in a farmers’ protest camp in Sagay City, Negros Occidental, which is part of the diocese.
And on December 27, police mounted the predecessor to the March operation, Oplan Sauron, leaving six persons dead in Negros Oriental, five of these in Guihulngan City, again part of the diocese.
Of the 14 persons killed on March 30, eight were from Canlaon City, which also belongs to the San Carlos diocese.
Manjuyod town accounted for four of the dead, including two barangay captains, and Sta. Catalina, two more.
Laude told the forum that the diocese had immediately mounted an investigation into the March 30 deaths and said the accounts of eyewitnesses and the families of the slain disputed police claims that those who died were killed when they fought it out with officers serving search warrants.
He also pointed to alleged irregularities, saying witnesses told of police commandos concealing their faces in balaclavas and with no nameplates on their uniforms who “surrounded victims’ houses and forced their way inside without identifying themselves as enforcers or giving them a chance to read the warrants.”
In earlier interviews to media, families of the fatalities, who lived far from and did not know each other, gave similar accounts of what happened, all saying the raider forced them out of their houses or rooms and then executed the victims.
Laude also said all accounts noted that “no barangay officials were present at the time of entry or search,” and showed up “only hours after.”
But Philippine National Police director for police-community relations, Major General Benigno Durana Jr, immediately dismissed the church’s findings saying it was “not a competent or legitimate investigative body.”
“Any findings they have will not matter,” he stressed, even as he warned that, “if you peddle that it will create a biased perception against our legitimate police forces.”
But Laude clarified that they had tapped the services of lawyers in their investigation and also cooperated with the Commission on Human Rights. Durana also claimed that, while “some sectors would call (the fatalities) farmers,” these were “farmers with other activities” who “acted as tipsters” and, thus, were “either accessories or accomplices of terrorist groups,” referring to communist rebels behind the assassination or ambush of police personnel.
He insisted that accusations of human rights violations were “all lies” by “sectors who are front organizations” of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army.
When CHR representative noted that, since the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law, “belief in communism is not a crime” and that the farmers, had they committed any crimes, should have been tried, Durana accused him of “parroting the propaganda line of the CPP-NPA.”
Siapno protested this “unfair assertion” and stressed that the farmers enjoyed the presumption of innocence as much as the police operation was covered by the presumption of regularity.
He also stressed that even if police claimed the slain farmers were killed because they fought back, these “should be tried and go through our courts.”
Alminaza, meanwhile, minced no words in his statement, calling the police’s insistence that the farmers fought back “callous.”
The bishop pointed out that Negros has had “a long history of social struggle” and the island’s farmers possess “grate social awareness” as well as “experience defending our lives and rights.”
Citing the atrocities committed on the island by the police, military and paramilitary groups during the Marcos dictatorship, Alminaza said: “Here we are again calling to stop the attacks of violent and barbaric at the very hands of our state forces. Let me ask this again: What’s happening? Are we still observing law and order?”
Referencing the thousands of deaths from the government’s bloody campaign against narcotics, he noted that “the madness of the drug war has rippled into our farming communities, inflicting more harm to … our poor communities.”
“Why continue this madness? Why execute people by mere suspicion? Why shed blood just because of command from the mighty? Why? We demand answers,” Alminaza said as he reiterated an earlier warning for state security forces to “please make sure you are not adding more reasons for our people to get disillusioned with our government and peacekeepers that will make the best recruiters for the underground movement.”
COVER IMAGE: Journalist Melo Acuna, police Major General Benigno Durana Jr., Fr. Eduardo Laude and the CHR’s Marc Siapno discuss the March 30 killings of 14 persons during police operations in Negros Oriental at the Wednesday Roundtable at Lido. (image grabbed from video courtesy of Melo Acuna)