MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – How independent will a truth commission on the Maguindanao clash be if President Benigno Aquino III is the one to appoint its members?
Lawmakers faced this question as they file a bill creating a truth commission mandated to investigate the January 25 encounter between elite cops from the Special Action Force (SAF) and rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that left 44 troopers and at least 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) dead.
Senators and representatives allied with the Aquino administration said they trust that the proposed truth body’s investigation will be independent, transparent and credible even if the chief executive faces questions about his role in the clash.
“All truth commissions are appointed by the President. Who else will appoint? We have confidence in the leadership of the President. We believe the President will back it also,” said Senator Teofisto Guingona III in a press briefing on Monday, February 2.
Aquino admitted that he knew of the covert operation to arrest international terrorists beforehand, and talked to now relieved SAF commander Getulio Napeñas Jr about it. Aquino evaded questions on whether or not he gave the go signal for the operation, which was not coordinated with the police hierarchy, the military, and the MILF.
Aquino was also unclear on the role his friend, suspended Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima, played in the operation following reports it was Purisima who approved it.
The clash threatened to derail the peace process between the government and the MILF, raised questions on the sincerity of the MILF, and sparked outrage from the public. Two senators withdrew authorship of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that will create an expanded autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. (READ: What now after the Maguindanao clash?)
Guingona, chair of the Senate peace, unification, and reconciliation committee, said that under the bill, the commission will have subpoena and contempt powers.
Yet will the President have immunity from the investigation?
“[The truth commission] can invite the President. I’m sure he will accede. We have faith,” Guingona said. “Truth will dictate how high [the investigation] will go.”
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, a co-author of the bill and cousin of the President, also addressed the immunity question.
“Presidential immunity is for lawsuits. This is not a suit. We are not forming a court but a fact-finding commission. This is really to ferret out the truth,” Senator Aquino said.
Guingona, Aquino, and Senator Aquilino Pimentel III push for the creation of the truth commission, suggesting former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr, former Senator Wigberto Tañada, and Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio "Tony" La Viña as among its members.
Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr also supported the idea. Santiago's constitutional amendments committee and Marcos' local government committee are handling the Bangsamoro law Senate hearings.
“Another political branch of government must investigate the Mamasapano clash. We can’t just rely on the police board. It should have no ties at all with the military or from the Office of the President who might be able to influence the members of that truth commission," Santiago said in a separate interview.
Senate President Franklin Drilon said he supports any process that leads to the truth "whether it is through the Truth Commission or through the Board of Inquiry, or with the aid of a congressional hearing."
Representatives joined Guingona, Aquino and Pimentel in the briefing to express support for the bill: Basilan Representative Sitti Turabin-Hataman, Marikina Representative Marcelino Teodoro, and Quezon City Representative Jorge Banal.
Other co-authors in the House of Representatives are Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo, Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao, and Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat. They will file a similar measure Monday afternoon.
The co-authors are allied with the group Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership.
Commenting on the announcement, La Viña told Rappler he was unaware he would be among the suggested appointees but he supports the creation of a truth body.
"I think it a good idea, an imperative given the accountability issues regarding this incident. I think the usual processes will not do here given what is at stake. It needs to be independent, specially because there are questions about the President himself and the role he played, the decisions he made," the dean said.
Key word: ‘Independence’
Vice President Jejomar Binay and some civil society groups have been calling for the creation of a truth commission even if there are already several investigations into the clash. The police, the MILF, the International Monitoring Team overseeing the government and MILF’s ceasefire agreement, the Senate, the House, and the Commission on Human Rights are all investigating the incident.
Yet Malacañang shot down the idea, saying there is no need for the body because of the probes already ongoing. Senator Vicente Sotto III also expressed concern that the different investigations will lead to contradictory findings.
Yet Guingona insisted that the commission will address fears of a whitewash.
“The Senate is doing a lot. It’s different when you have a body focused on this and headed by people of proven competence, probity, and unimpeachable integrity, so that when the report comes out, there is no doubt, there is no bias,” he said.
Senator Aquino also said the different parallel investigations have their own focus.
“We still need the parallel probes because the Senate, House, and police have different perspectives. What they produce can be consolidated, verified by the truth commission. It does not mean there should only be one body to investigate.”
The body’s primary mandate is to determine the truth, and answer what Guingona called “hard questions” on the incident. It will be composed of a chairperson and two commissioners.
It can also hold executive sessions if officials invoke national security. The commission will then make a report with recommendations to be submitted to the Office of the President and Congress. The justice department and the Ombudsman will still be in charge of prosecuting the case.
“The scope of the truth commission is anything and everything on Mamasapano,” Guingona said.
US can be invited
The lawmakers said that the truth commission can also invite representatives of the United States government to address reports that America provided intelligence on the whereabouts of wanted Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir or “Marwan,” and allegations it was involved in the operations.
“The point is to find the truth,” Senator Aquino said.
The legislators added the commission will not suffer the fate of the first truth commission created under the Aquino administration in 2010, which the Supreme Court struck down for violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution by focusing only on the alleged anomalies of the previous Arroyo administration.
“The power of the truth commission will depend on Congress. We will define the vastness of the power of the truth commission,” Guingona added.
The co-authors stressed that the proposal is the only way to find truth and justice, while moving forward with the peace process and the deliberations on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.
Guingona said: “We need trust. But how can we restore trust without truth and accountability? This is very important. It strikes at the core of the peace process: trust.”
Here is a copy of the Senate bill: