After 14 years, the Manila court handling the case of “traveling skeletons” finally dismissed the murder charges against NDFP peace consultants and several other activists. The court found the witnesses tainted with bias and ill motive.
By JONAS ALPASAN
MANILA — A regional trial court in Manila has dismissed the multiple murder charges against peace consultants, activists, and farmers that stemmed from the infamous Hilongos case.
In a decision dated Dec. 16, Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina granted the demurrer to evidence pleas that were separately filed by those accused in the Hilongos case. The court said the prosecution failed to prove that the alleged victims were killed and that they were not able to “scientifically prove” that the skeletons exhumed in 2006 were those of the victims.
The court also found the prosecution witnesses as “tainted with bias and ill motive.”
Among the accused are peace consultants Benito Tiamzon, Wilma Austria, Adelberto Silva, Vicente Ladlad, former lawmaker Satur Ocampo, and farmer activists Norberto Murillo, Dario Tomada, and Oscar Belleza.
“This Court would not venture to analyze, reconcile or even discuss the conflicting ideological principles that precipitate hostilities between the government and the rebel movement. But this is just to manifest its sincere and ardent wish that their respective leaders will endeavor to go back to the negotiating table and eventually forge a long-lasting peace agreement which will be mutually beneficial to them,” Bunyi-Medina wrote in the 97-page decision, which has resolved the 14-year battle of peace consultants and activists in court.
No forensic evidence, inconsistencies with witnesses
In her decision, Bunyi-Medina said there is neither documentary evidence of the alleged 15 victims’ death nor was there forensic evidence presented before the court. The decision also pointed out how there were “numerous lapses in the handling, marking and chain of custody of the skeletal remains as shown by the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses further cast lingering doubts on their origin and identities.”
“The testimonies of the prosecution witnesses on the identities of the skeletal remains are full of inconsistencies, highly unbelievable, and clearly perjured,” the decision read.
In particular, Bunyi-Medina found the testimonies of prosecution witnesses who claimed to be rebel returnees as “incredible and untrustworthy.”
“The court noted the numerous “infirmities” in the testimonies of the prosecution’s witness who claimed to be former members of the New People’s Army and rebel returnees. With these, the prosecution’s failure to prove the first element “would already suffice to cast doubt” on the guilt of the accused,” said the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in a statement.
The NUPL are lawyers of farmers Murillo, Tomada, and Belleza.
Tantamount to an acquittal
Lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center, in a statement sent to the media, said the decision of the Manila court to grant the demurrer to evidence plea “tantamount to an acquittal, in one of the most controversial cases initiated by the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group.”
IALAG led the filing of trumped-up cases against activists during the Arroyo administration. This was dismantled following the 2007 visit of the then UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston.
On Aug. 26, 2006, the military claimed that they found a mass grave of victims of an alleged anti-infiltration campaign of the Communist Party of the Philippines. More than 70 activists, including disappeared peace consultants Leo Velasco and Prudencio Calubid, were charged with multiple murder charges in relation to the mass grave in 2007.
Those accused, however, said the case is recycled and based on false evidence as five of the skeletons found in Inopacan are the same ones found in a separate mass grave found in Baybay, Leyte six years earlier.
The PILC said that their “joy is tempered by the fact that our clients have other pending cases that hinder their release, and some are still on the government’s designation list, and that the ATA [Anti-Terror Act of 2020] is presently valid as against us all. Still, there is some hope in the offing to cheer us during these bleak times.” (RVO)