A gruesome tale of TokHang: 'Sir, may humihinga pa'

DRUG KILLINGS. Police seal off a crime scene following a TokHang operation in Manila on November 7, 2016, that led to the death of the suspect. Photo by Rappler

DRUG KILLINGS. Police seal off a crime scene following a TokHang operation in Manila on November 7, 2016, that led to the death of the suspect.

Photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – A petition was filed before the Supreme Court on Thursday, January 26, seeking to suspend Oplan TokHang in one barangay in Quezon City. Four days later, on Monday, January 30, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa announced they will stop the controversial operation nationwide

The petitioners are not happy with the development.  For lawyer Joel Ruiz Butuyan, president of the Center for International Law (CenterLaw) which is representing the kin of TokHang victims in court, it is not enough to stop the war on drugs as many grieving families are still awaiting an explanation from the government and, more important, vindication.

Butuyan told Rappler that they will continue to pursue their petition before the High Court despite the termination of Oplan Tokhang, the state-mandated strategy where cops are supposed to knock on homes of drug suspects to convince them to surrender and change their ways. A total of 2,551 had been killed in such operations. 

As of January 28, 2017, the war on drugs has killed 7,076 individuals, more than half outside legitimate police operations and are under investigation. (READ:  IN NUMBERS: The Philippines' 'war on drugs')

Made for the movies

The incident that led to the first-ever legal challenge to  President Rodrigo Duterte's TokHang is a story made for the movies.

According to the petition, on the afternoon of August 21, 2016, Efren Morillo, Marcelo Daa Jr, Raffy Gabo, Jessie Cule, and Anthony Comendo played pool in Daa's shanty in Payatas, Quezon City, where they passed time until they were to resume work in the evening as garbage collectors.

Four policemen barged into the yard of the shanty and aimed their guns at the victims.

"Daa, Cule, and Morillo put up their hands in surrender," the petition said.

"The armed men handcuffed Daa and Morillo. They pulled the electric wire from the ceiling of the hut which they used to tie Cule's hands. They fetched Gabo and Comendo who were at the hammock at the back of the house and also tied their hands with electric wire. Then they made Daa, Morillo, Cule, Gabo, and Comendo sit side by side on a bench. The whole time, the armed men kept accusing the 5 captives of being involved in illegal drugs," it added.

The petition, which was based on the testimonies of witnesses, said the policemen "ransacked" the shanty and then returned to the yard bearing a silver foil and a lighter. They accused the victims of using drugs. The victims denied the accusation, but the cops dragged them to the back of the house.

Lone survivor

The petition recounted in detail how the policemen executed the victims: "The armed man made Daa sit on a wooden chair and Morillo on the armrest thereof. Then, without warning, he pointed his firearm at Morillo and shot him on the chest. Morillo fell to the ground bleeding, but he did not lose consciousness. Next, the armed man shot Daa, who fell to the ground beside Morillo. Daa was shot a second time on the head as he lay on the ground. He died."

Such details could only come from someone who witnessed the ordeal up close – none other than Morillo, the lone survivor.

Morillo played dead. When he was out of the suspects' sight, he crawled through a hole in the wall, slid down a ravine, trekked up a hill, and sought help when he reached the highway. He was brought to a small clinic in Montalban, Rizal, but was returned to the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) upon the insistence of Montalban police. Morillo said QCPD cops only brought him to the East Avenue Medical Center past midnight. He was shot at 3 pm.

Morillo is one of the petitioners in the case.

'Sir, may humihinga pa'

Marilyn Malimban, Cule's live-in partner and a petitioner in the case, attested to what happened to the 3 other victims  – Gabo, Cule, and Comendo – as recounted to her by a 14-year-old boy who witnessed the killings.

"They made the 3 kneel on the ground at the back of the house and shot them to death. Jessie Cule was the last of the 3 to be killed. He begged to be spared, hugging the legs of one of the armed men and sobbing. As he would not let go of his hold, the man shot him on the nape," the petition read.

News of what was happening inside Daa's home spread to the neighborhood and soon enough, people were gathered near the scene of the crime but were barred from entering the yard. One of them remained outside the gate and swore to have heard one of the cops say, "'Sir, may humihinga pa (Sir, one of them is still breathing).'"

"The armed men then walked toward the back of the house. A few moments later, two gunshots rang out," the petition said.

Maribeth Bartolay, Daa's live-in partner and also a petitioner, claimed: "The armed men stayed several more hours inside the Daa residence. They ate at the pool table area using the family plates and utensils. They even had the insolence to solicit food and drinks from (my) sari-sari store."

The cops were identified as Senior Inspector Emil Garcia, Police Officer 3 Allan Formilleza, Police Officer 1 James Aggarao, and Police Officer 1 Melchor Navisaga of QCPD Station 6.

Garcia would later tell a GMA News reporter that the victims were armed and shot at them first. He added that the men were notorious drug users and robbers. The petitioners claimed that the police report the cops would later file contradicted the narrative they gave to media.

'Harassment'

The petition seeks the issuance of the writ of amparo to protect the survivor and the victims' kin from alleged harassment and threats to life. The petitioners requested the Supreme Court to issue a 5-kilometer restraining order against local cops, particularly those from QCPD Station 6.

It also sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Oplan TokHang in Area B, Payatas, and the rest of the jurisdiction of QCPD Station 6.

In light of the PNP's latest directive, the suspension request against TokHang is rendered moot. But Butuyan said the Supreme Court still needs to address the last and most important of their requests which is to order the QCPD to produce evidence that the victims were really linked to drug operations and therefore merited the TokHang raid.

They are also hoping the SC would grant the restraining order, as the cops still allegedly visit the area to harass the families.

According to Butuyan, Duterte's move to stop TokHang was a political one and not a response to the calls of human rights groups.

"An embarassing defeat in court handed down to the TokHang program would have unprecedented political repercussions for the Duterte administration. It is clear they wanted to avoid a potentially disastrous court decision. But it remains to be seen whether the killings would stop," Butuyan told Rappler in a text message.

QCPD Chief Superintendent Guillermo Eleazar confirmed to Rappler that the 4 policemen remain active, but added that the police district will conduct its own investigation, including the allegation that the policemen are harassing the families to this day. 

"We have not received a copy of the petition. We will submit our reply if required to do so. We will fully cooperate with the court and authorities in this matter," Eleazar said. – 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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