‘Too little, too late’: Court convicts 3 henchmen in 1986 slay of unionist Olalia

The Antipolo Regional Trial Court Branch 97 convicted and sentenced to reclusion perpetua three former members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) for the 1986 double murder case of labor leader Rolando Olalia and his driver Leonor Alay-ay.

Former Philippine Navy sergeants Desiderio Perez, Fernando Casanova and Dennis Jabatan, were found guilty, without eligibility of parole, by Judge Marie Claire Victoria Mabutas Sordan who promulgated the verdict via video conferencing on Tuesday.

All three were members of RAM, the group within the Philippine military which played a role in the Edsa Revolution that deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. RAM was later involved in a series of failed coup attempts which destabilized the government of President Corazon Aquino.

"The court is not persuaded by the evidence presented by the accused in their defense. Suffice it to say that defenses of denial and alibi are inconsequential," said Judge Sordan, giving weight to witnesses who positively identified the three as part of the group who abducted Olalia and Alay-ay and took them to a safehouse to be executed.

The court awarded the heirs of Olalia P1.2 million in damages and the heirs of Alay-ay P900,000 in damages.

As the conviction is subject to appeal, the damages will still not be paid.

According to the 1998 affidavit of their star witness, former technical sergeant Medardo Dumlao Barreto, the three convicted were among the 28 soldiers who were part of a group ordered to surveil Olalia, and human rights lawyer Augusto "Bobbit" Sanchez, progressive labor minister at the time.

Barreto pointed to retired Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo "Red" Kapunan as the mastermind.

The ploy came to be known as the "God Save the Queen," RAM-led plot to supposedly kill progressives in government. RAM – which Kapunan co-founded – attempted to bring down the Corazon Aquino government for fear it was being run by leftists.

During trial, Kapunan admitted to ordering the surveillance on Olalia, at the time the leader of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).

Kapunan was cleared by the same judge in June 2016, granting his demurrer to evidence. This meant Kapunan did not have to present his defense. The same judge said Barreto's testimony that Kapunan ordered him to "finish the job" and gave him money to dispose of the car used to surveil Olalia were insufficient proof, according to the recollection of Edre Olalia.

Kapunan became ambassador to Myanmar under President Rodrigo Duterte in February 2017.

Perez and Jabatan were only arrested in 2012, and Casanova much later in 2016. This means they would have 31 to 35 years more to serve in their reclusion perpetua sentence or up to 40 years. The other nine soldiers charged have remained at large.

'Too little too late'

"It's too little too late," said former Bayan Muna representative Teddy Casiño.

"Too late because justice delayed is justice denied. 35 years. And too little because only the trigger men were punished, the masterminds are thriving," Casiño added in a mix of English and Filipino.

This is a case that crawled through the judicial mill for 35 years. It was stale until 1998 when the star witnesses cooperated, but was stalled because former president Fidel V. Ramos granted a general amnesty to insurgents and rebels.

It reached up to the Supreme Court and in 2009, the High Court ruled the amnesty did not cover the Olalia-Alay-ay murder and greenlighted the trial.

"For the families of the victims, the judicial proceedings from one court to another were too protracted, the legal tactics were overutilized, and twists and turns at different junctures, levels and fora were exasperating," said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, a private prosecutor in the case and a cousin of Rolando.

Rolando Olalia's son Rolando Rico, who was a law school freshman when his father was killed, said "for the longest time, our family has been languishing in a pit of despair brought on by the glacial pace of justice."

Casiño and Edre Olalia said the conviction of the three henchmen should serve as a warning to subordinates who will follow orders.

"Superiors will eventually abandon you when the chips are down," said Edre Olalia.

"Sa mga nagpapagamit sa malalaking tao, nagpapagamit sa NTF-ELCAC, nagpapagamit sa rehimeng Duterte, balang araw aabutan din kayo ng hustisya at tiyak na ilalaglag din kayo ng inyong mga boss," said Casiño.

(To those who allow themselves to be used by powerful people, by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, by the Duterte government, one day justice will catch up with you and for sure, your bosses will throw you under the bus.)

"Today is a day of celebration and of restored belief in our judicial system.  It is also a day of loss and a day of remembrance in honor of two brave and honorable men we were privileged to know as father and as a friend," said Rolando Rico. – Rappler.com

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mentioned RAM as the Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa. The three convicted soldiers were members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement. This has been corrected.

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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