A Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) dismissed charges against dozens of Leftists and civilians and ordered the release of the detained in the case involving the so-called “traveling skeletons” of Inopacan, Leyte.
In an order dated December 16, Manila RTC Branch 32 granted the demurrer separately filed by farmers Norberto Murillo, Dario Tomada and Oscar Belleza, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) announced.
Manila RTC Branch 32 presiding judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the first element of murder, that is, the alleged 15 victims were actually killed and that the accused were actually involved in the alleged crime, the NUPL said.
“[The government]…failed to scientifically prove that the subject skeletal remains exhumed in Mt. Sapang Dako, Barangay Kaulisihan, Inopacan, Leyte on August 26-29, 2006 belong to the latter and [that]…the accounts of its eye-witnesses as regards how they were killed, who killed them and other surrounding circumstances behind their deaths are palpably unreliable,” it added.
The court reportedly noted the numerous infirmities in the testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses who claimed to be former members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and rebel returnees.
[T]he Decision found “overwhelming contrarieties and infirmities in the testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses,” the decision reportedly ruled.
The court also dismissed the cases of others “against whom the prosecution had already terminated the presentation of its evidence but who had not filed their Demurrer to Evidence,” including prominent Leftist leaders and peace negotiators.
In 2006, the government’s Inter-Agency Legal Action Group again filed multiple murder charges against 38 civilians as well as prominent Leftists, including National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison who was under maximum security detention of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship at the time of the alleged crime.
An earlier 2000 case was filed on the allegation that the 67 skeletal remains were of victims of a purge of NPA members carried out by the accused.
Human rights group Karapatan however pointed out in 2019 that the skeletons of three of the alleged victims in the 2000 case as well as other witnesses were “recycled” in the later Hilongos, Leyte trials.
Karapatan said the 2006 charges were simply a “remake of the story portrayed by the prosecution in Criminal Case No. 2001-6-51 before the Regional Trial Court (RTC), 8th Judicial Region, Baybay, Leyte which was dismissed by the said court.”
Sison in turn accused then Philippine Army commanding general, now national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., of collecting the bones from various cemeteries for his “legal offensive” against those opposing then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Other defendants questioned the articles of clothing presented during the hearings which still displayed vivid markings and colors.
“Those who have been to the mountains would know that clothes buried in the rainforest for more than 20 years would not appear like that. It should have completely decomposed by now,” accused Benito Tiamzon, NDFP negotiating panel member, told Bulatlat during a 2016 hearing.
‘Christmas gift for peace consultants’
The Public Interest Law Center, co-defense counsels, said the Court’s decision is an early Christmas gift for the defendants.
“[We]…counsel for [co-accused] Saturnino Ocampo, Adelberto Silva, Rafael Baylosis, and the late Randall Echanis, (are) heartened by the ruling, which is tantamount to an acquittal, in one of the most controversial cases initiated by the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group. The Court’s painstaking consideration is patent in a 97-page dissection of the prosecution’s evidence. In all, the Decision found “overwhelming contrarieties and infirmities in the testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses,” the PILC said.
“We are delighted that the Court has well-taken our consistent position that these cases are trumped-up, arguably part of an elaborate ploy to vilify our clients. These cases impleaded many consultants in the peace talks who had gone public – and these charges were but part of persecution by the government,” the lawyers said.
Accused Ocampo, Silva, Baylosis and Echanis, as well as Vicente Ladlad and Wilma Austria are NDFP peace consultants who actively attended formal peace negotiations with the Manila government.
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) hailed the decision, saying it is a hard-earned victory for Murillo, Belleza and Tomada, the last a leader of its Eastern Visayas chapter Sagupa at the time of their arrest in 2010.
“It (the decision) inspires hope for farmers nationwide facing the criminalization of asserting land rights. KMP likewise calls for the unconditional release of all political prisoners,” the group said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)