Police officer rejected as ‘expert witness’ in Leyte mass grave case

During cross examination, the police officer who examined the skeletons of the alleged victims admitted that he arrived at the crime scene at least 10 days after the digging at the massacre site began. Those who exhumed the remains, he added, may also be soldiers.


MANILA – A Manila Regional Trial Court judge rejected the “expert witness” testimony of a police officer who looked into the exhumed skulls of the supposed victims of the Leyte mass grave.

The Inopacan Leyte mass grave is the basis of the multiple murder case against several National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultants, including Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria, and dozens of leaders and organizers of progressive groups.

A lawyer of one of the accused said that from the police officer’s testimony, the evidence “maybe tampered.”

At the hearing held on Dec. 3, Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 32 ruled to accept the testimony of Police Superintendent Edwin Zata as an “ordinary witness,” and not as an “expert” as he was presented by the prosecution.

Zata, of the Police Crime Laboratory in Palo, Leyte, was among those who responded to the exhumation of the supposed remains at the mass grave found in Inopacan, Leyte.

Zata gave his testimony during the bail petition hearing of the accused Dario Tomada, Oscar Belleza, Norberto Murillo and Bernabe Ocasla, who are peasant leaders in their respective communities in Leyte.

Zata said it was the Inter-agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) that requested for the Scene of the Crime Operatives to look into the mass graves.

Lawyers, supporters and some of the accused check the photos presented by the prosecution. (Photo by J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)
Lawyers, supporters and some of the accused check the photos presented by the prosecution. (Photo by J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)

The IALAG was put up under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to coordinate all cases that supposedly threaten national security. Critics, however, said it was used to file trumped-up cases against progressive organizations. Though IALAG was abolished in 2009, activists said, the cases it filed against them were not dropped.

On Aug. 26, 2006, the military claimed that they found a mass grave of victims of the anti-infiltration campaign of the Communist Party of the Philippines. More than 70 activists were charged with multiple murder in relation to the mass grave.

Those accused said the case is recycled and based on false evidences as five of the skeletons found in Inopacan are the same ones found in a separate mass grave found in Baybay, Leyte in 2000.

Not an expert witness

Medina ruled during the hearing that she was not “satisfied” with the supposed qualifications of Zata, who was presented by the prosecution as an “expert witness” on the case.

Zata, a medical technologist, said he joined the then Philippine Constabulary in the late 1980s. Zata claimed he received several trainings in collecting evidences in a crime scene, Basic Aidman course, life-saving techniques, among others.

But Jobert Pahilga, lawyer of accused Tomada and Villesa, said he cannot be considered as an expert witness as he was only trained to collect and deliver evidences to concerned police agencies and not to do corresponding tests on evidences itself.

Upon questioning by Lawyer Ricardo Sunga, the counsel for Morilla and Ocasla, Zata said that he is not a doctor. Asked if he took post graduate studies, he said that he studied medico legal when he took up Bachelor of Laws, but it turned out to be a one-unit subject.

Pahilga also made several manifestations that the prosecutor did not provide them a list of witnesses to be presented, as agreed in the previous hearing. Zata’s testimony was already presented during the bail hearing of another accused Noli Narca.

This, Pahilga said, would have given them sufficient time to study their testimonies prior the hearing.

During the hearing, public prosecutor Rosulo Vivero was repeatedly reprimanded by Judge Medina for asking leading questions. Several statements of Zata, on the other hand, were stricken out of the records as they were not in response to the questions being asked, according to defense counsels.

Most of Zata’s testimony involved six-page photos of the supposed exhumation of the remains at the mass grave in Inopacan. He claimed that he took the photos using his personal camera.

Included was a photo of the list of victims, which, Zata said, were identified by relatives. During the cross examination, Zata said the list were names of those reported missing in the towns of Baybay and Inopacan.

Broken skulls

Two photos show two men carrying big sacks. Zata said the two men told him that it contained skeletons found in a digging at the foot of the mountain. The recovered clothing and skeletons, Zata said, were washed as it was covered by mud. Judge Medina asked if the washing of the clothes and the skeletons does not constitute tampering of the evidences. He responded that it was their SOP.

During the cross examination, Zata further revealed that after washing the skulls, all 66 skulls were placed in a sack. This, Pahilga told Bulatlat.com, may have caused some of the skulls to get broken, which was essential to the prosecution since they wanted to prove that there were bullet holes in skulls.

Zata, however, said that he never saw a single skull exhumed from the hole being dug at Inopacan. When he arrived, he added, about 20 skulls were already presented, labeled and neatly arranged in a table, as seen in one of the photos they presented. He also admitted before the court that there is a possibility that the skulls were brought in from another place due to the two men he earlier encountered.

Zata, during cross examination, also said that they arrived at the crime scene at least 10 days after the digging at the massacre site began. Those who exhumed the remains, he added, may also be soldiers.

Pahilga told Bulatlat.com that there are many loopholes in the testimony. But the main issue here, he added, is the fact that the evidence supposedly collected was tampered already.

There are four more witnesses yet to be presented for the bail hearings.

Certiorari sought

Meanwhile, the arraignment of the other accused in the case – peace consultants Tiamzon and Austria, and including former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo, Rafael Baylosis, Randall Echanis, among others — was postponed as the defense panel filed another motion informing the court of their plans to file a petition for certiorari before the Court of Appeals.

The motion to quash information and dismiss the case was earlier denied by Judge Medina.

Rachel Pastores, one of the lawyers of the accused, said during the hearing that they only received the order dismissing their motion on Nov. 27. They were not able to file the certiorari prior to the Dec. 3 hearing as they did not have ample time to prepare the petition.

Pastores told Bulatlat.com that their petition for certiorari will question the information of the case, saying that the testimonies by supposed witnesses do not support the circumstances of the charges filed.

Not guilty plea

In a related development, the Tiamzon couple were flown to Cebu on Dec. 1 for their arraignment for the illegal possession of firearms and explosives case. They pleaded not guilty during the arraignment.

Tiamzon said they initially estimated that the government spent P2 million ($45,500) for their arraignment due to the security measures, which included, among others, the use of a Fokker plane and a helicopter. He added that they received another information that the government actually spent P7 million ($159,000).

“They are willing to spend P7 million ($159,000) for a fabricated case, backed by planted evidences,” Austria said.

She added the arraignment pushed through only because state prosecutors cited that the government spent a big amount of money to bring them to Cebu.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines, in a report, denied that they overspent for the arraignment and that the supposed “overkill” in the security measure on the Tiamzon couple was only meant to discredit the military.


Outside the court, protesters including participants of the Manilakbayan, a caravan of the Mindanao people, held a picket. They demanded the dismissal of the false charges against activists. December 3 is the commemoration of the International Solidarity for Political Prisoners.

Political detainees, about 487 jailed nationwide, will stage a fasting from today, Dec. 3, until Dec. 10, the International Human Rights Day.

In an interview with Tiamzon, he said that the filing of trumped-up cases is the “legal offensive part of the counterinsurgency program against the progressive movement.”

The fact that there are political detainees, Austria said, “symbolizes the continuing fight of the people for genuine national democracy.” (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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