press freedom

Groups want US troops probed

David Yu Santos
Family of victims reportedly will not pursue charges against American troops involved in the accident

MARITIME ACTIVITY. US troops under the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines conduct various maritime activities in Western Mindanao, among them, participate in a rescue operation during the 2009 sinking of a commercial ferry off the coast of Zamboanga del Norte. (Photo from JSOTF-P)

MANILA, Philippines – Militant groups opposed to the presence of American troops in Mindanao will be sending a fact-finding team to Basilan to investigate the death of a fisherman in an accident involving PH-US troops.

“There is no doubt that we need to dig deeper into the reported incident involving the American troops, but we also need to double-check the facts before we could pass judgment,” said Niel Murad of Patriotiko Mindanao, a coalition of advocacy groups that recently held a people’s caravan against Balikatan 2012, an ongoing joint training between Filipino and American troops.

 

Col. Ricardo Visaya, commander of the Army’s 104thBrigade and Joint Task Force Basilan, said US soldiers aboard the Mark V speedboat had just delivered medicines in the town of Hadji Muhtamad at around 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, when their US Navy vessel rammed a motorized pump boat. The fisherman’s boat, which was on its way to Hadji Muhtamad, suddenly appeared at the path of the speedboat, causing the collision, Visaya said.

 

“Our Special Forces requested for medicine for medcap (medical and civic action program) in the island. The Americans granted the request. They delivered the medicines but on their way back, they figured in the accident,” Visaya told reporters.

The troops are not part of the ongoing Balikatan 2012 exercises but belong to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines(JSOTF-P) headquartered in Zamboanga City, which is composed of American troops who receive orders from the US Pacific Command based in Hawaii.

The task force, which has about 600 US troops on rotation, has been in Mindanao for a decade now though it began as a smaller unit.

Murad said representatives from the Suara Bangsamoro, Kawagib-Moro Human Rights and Liga ng Kabataang Moro are planning to visit the town of Hadji Muhtamad, particularly Baluk-Baluk Island, to personally gather information on the incident and talk to possible eyewtinesses.

Another advocacy group, the Human Rights Action Center in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is considering a separate probe on the incident.

Asked if the Americans admitted that they were at fault, Visaya said: “You can’t say that they were at fault because it was dark. Although they have navigation equipment, the small boat suddenly appeared so you cannot really see it.”

The killed fisherman was identified as Ahbam Juhurin. Visaya said his unnamed son, aged between 20 to 25, is currently being treated at the Camp Navarro Hospital inside the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) in Zamboanga City.

Settlement

Asked if the US soldiers would be held liable for the incident, Visaya said: “I believe it’s already settled. The family (of the victims) accepted that it’s really an accident. Although we know they are liable, but then it was all settled with the intervention of the former mayor Lantawan (town), Mayor Tahira (Ismael).”

Speaking briefly to Rappler by phone on Friday, April 20, Ismael, a relative of the victims, said the family “has accepted the tragedy since it was unintentional.” Ismael earlier hinted that the victim’s family may no longer pursue charges against the soldiers involved in the accident.

“The information we are getting is that the family of the victims is not interested in cooperating [with us] in our probe. We will respect that,” Murad said. “We will have to speak to other sources such as residents in Baluk-Baluk or the medical personnel who initially attended to the victims.”

In a text message to Rappler, WestMinCom spokesman Lt Col Randy Cabangbang said the body of Juhurin was transported to Baluk-Baluk Island by a Philippine Navy vessel on Thursday morning, April 19, to comply with an Islamic practice requiring the burial of the dead in less than 24 hours.

The JSOTF-P also paid for the hospital bills of Juhurin’s son, when he was initially admitted at a private hospital, according to Cabangbang. – Rappler.com