DOJ still weighing calls to remove PNP in Echanis slay special probe

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is still weighing calls to remove the police in its special investigation into the killing of known activist and National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Randall "Randy" Echanis.

"We’ll determine this as more facts come to the fore. We do not wish to make any prejudgment as to the possible perpetrators at this time," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters Tuesday, August 11.

Peasant group Anakpawis, which Echanis chaired, alleged that "police forces raided his house" early morning Monday, August 10, after which he was found dead. Police have not come out with a report yet because of a dispute over the dead body's identity.

Guevarra said that once the body is confirmed to be that of Echanis, a special investigating team under the Administrative Order (AO) 35 task force will be formed.

The AO 35 task force is a special unit of the justice department that is looking into politically-motivated killings or extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of people fighting for known causes. The drug war killings are under a separate special panel.

The AO 35 investigating team may include police or the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) depending on the case, but the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) on Tuesday called on Guevarra to exclude the police.

"The role of the police is to enforce the law, not break it. Their job is to investigate killings, not whitewash them," FLAG said in a statement Tuesday, saying Guevarra must order the NBI to step in and for the Philippine National Police (PNP) to turn over its investigation.

FLAG accused the police of a whitewash because the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) forcibly took the dead body from Echanis' family Monday night as they were already preparing for a wake, and brought it to the Pink Petals funeral home in La Loma.

Confirming the identity

The QCPD still doubts it is Echanis because an ID recovered from the crime scene indicates the name of a certain Manuel Santiago. Echanis' family swears it's him and has released photos of the dead man.

In the process of taking the body, the QCPD also arrested a paralegal for obstruction of justice.

While Guevarra said the police "should explain why it was necessary to transfer the body from one funeral parlor to another," he said he cannot stop the PNP from doing its own investigation.

"We can’t stop the PNP if they want to investigate on their own. But the task force, or the NBI, can do their own parallel investigation," said Guevarra.

"The first step towards that is uncovering the truth. The brazen misconduct of the Quezon City Police obscures that truth," said FLAG.

The police is insisting on doing a DNA test on the dead body, while Guevarra said he will ask NBI forensics to confirm it is Echanis.

Prosecutors lead the special investigating teams of the AO 35 task force, but Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said "depending on the circumstances of the case, it may include PNP officers or NBI investigators or both."

AO 35

Echanis is the 4th NDF political consultant to be killed, after Sotero LlamasRandy Malayao, and Julius Giron.

Echanis was originally among the list of more than 600 people the Duterte government wanted to declare as terrorists, but the DOJ struck his name off that list later on and left only 8. The Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) further reduced the names on the list to two in a still pending proscription case.

Echanis is also among the activists charged in the 2006 Inopacan, Leyte mass grave case that involved a so-called purge of communists, but he had earlier won a bail grant from the Supreme Court. A fresh warrant for that case issued in 2019 did not include him.

The AO 35 task force has been looking into politically-motivated killings such as the spate of killings of activists in Negros. Its goal is to spot trends and hot spots.

"In time, we hope to publish a heat map and an analysis of the cases per region," said Perete.

Perete also said the work of the task force has been affected by the hiring freeze on consultants because of the pandemic.

"But the project is still ongoing. We remain confident that we can complete this work," said Perete. – Rappler.com

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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