Philippine justice system

Big win for activists: Manila court frees 3 peasant leaders in mass graves case

Lian Buan
Big win for activists: Manila court frees 3 peasant leaders in mass graves case

CLEARED. Peace consultants Vicente Ladlad, Adelberto Silva, Rafael Baylosis; and peasant leaders Oscar Belleza, Dario Tomada and Norberto Murillo, and Exuperio Lloren during a hearing in 2019. Photo courtesy of Atty Kristina Conti

NDF peace consultants, designated terrorists under the feared law, are also cleared in the purge case

MANILA, Philippines – Activists scored their biggest win yet after a Manila court dismantled the 12-year-old Leyte mass graves purge case, freeing three more people who had already spent 10 years in jail.

Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 32 ordered the release of Norberto Murillo, Dario Tomada, and Oscar Belleza – another victory in a year marked by a winning streak for activists. SENTRA said the three were released on Saturday afternoon, December 18.

In her order issued on Thursday, December 16, Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina dismissed the murder charges against the three peasant leaders and 12 others charged in the long-running case that became the basis of many rearrests when the Duterte government’s peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF)collapsed. The lawyers received the order on Friday, December 17.

The rearrested individuals had been granted temporary liberty early in the Duterte administration so they can participate in the peace negotiations with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The court dismissed the charges against the 15 for failure of the prosecution to confirm the DNA of the skeletons exhumed from mass graves discovered in Inopacan, Leyte, in 2007. The activists were accused of killing and burying their comrades in a purge during the 1980s.

The court said that the Philippine National Police (PNP) had DNA technology in 2015, which the prosecution could have utilized to get confirmation that the skeletons belonged to the alleged victims.

“Had it done so, it could have been a walk in the park, so to speak, to prove this first element of the crimes charged. With this factual backdrop, it boggles the mind why the prosecution failed to perform this important and crucial task despite having the capacity to do so as early as 2015,” said Medina in a 97-page decision.

The prosecution presented witnesses, mostly relatives of the alleged victims but the judge said, “The incongruences and flaws in their testimonies are overwhelmingly numerous which relate to the very identities of some of the accused, the dates and locations of the subject incidents and how the acts imputed to them were executed and thus, they cannot obviously be classified as slight and inconsequential.”

The skeletons were first dug up in 2000 in Baybay, Leyte and were the subject of a similar case there. The skeletons that were dug up in Inopacan in 2007 were said to belong to the same people. Activists have dubbed it the “traveling skeletons.”

“Of course, logic dictates that these eventualities cannot or are impossible to happen unless these skeletal remains, as conjured by the defense, were exhumed in one place and thereafter, transferred and/or buried in another,” the court said.

In an impassioned side note, Medina said she was not ruling out the possiblity that those she had cleared were communist rebels who might have committed atrocities but “simply, this Court merely declares that the prosecution failed to pass the exacting standard of moral certainty to discharge its burden of establishing the guilt.”

“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,” said the judge.

“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,” she added.

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Peace consultants cleared

Also cleared were Adelberto Silva, Vicente Ladlad, Rafael Baylosis, Wilma Tiamzon, and Benita Tiamzon – the peace consultants who have been designated as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council using a unilateral power under the feared anti-terror law which had been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Baylosis was released after he was cleared in 2019 of charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Ladlad and Silva are in jail for still pending 2018 charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. The Tiamzon couple have been at large since Duterte ordered their rearrest, but they were convicted of kidnapping in November 2020 by a Quezon City court. Those with pending charges or conviction will remain behind bars.

The court had also cleared prominent activist Satur Ocampo in the purge charge, but the former Bayan Muna congressmen had been free for years after getting a bail grant from the Supreme Court.

“We are delighted that the Court has well-taken our consistent position that these cases are trumped-up, arguably part of an elaborate ploy to vilify our clients. These cases impleaded many consultants in the peace talks who had gone public – and these charges were but part of persecution by the government,” said the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), lawyers for Ladlad, Silva, Baylosis, and Ocampo.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), counsel for long-jailed Murillo, Tomada, and Belleza, said in an earlier pleading, “They should be relieved from the continuing pain and hardship of further being deprived of their liberty and unnecessarily enduring a full-blown trial. It is time to right the wrong already.”

Others cleared were Felomino Salazar, Presillano Beringel, Luzviminda Orillo, and Muco Lubong.

Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding chairmanJoma Sison, who is on exile in the Netherlands, was not covered by the recent order.

AFormer New Peoples’ Army (NPA) chairman Rodolfo Salas was also excluded from the order. He had been rearrested over the same case but was freed after his lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) won bail for him at the Supreme Court just before the pandemic hit in 2020.

Salas was again arrested for illegal possession of firearms – but FLAG recently won that case too when a local judge voided the search against him that yielded the alleged guns.

Salas is among 24 activists cleared and freed in 2021 alone for charges related to searches and search warrants. Of the 24, the 19 cases were won because the search warrants were voided for being unconstitutional, while the five other cases were won after trial.

The Supreme Court has responded to this search warrant problem by requiring police to wear body cameras during operations, and by scrapping the power of Manila and Quezon City judges to issue search warrants outside of their jurisdictions.

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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.