Court convicts Army officer in Al-Barka fiasco

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Lt Col Leo Peña is found guilty of neglect that led to the killing of 19 Special Forces troops in Al-Barka, Basilan in October 2011

MILF stronghold. A file photo of MILF rebels. Photo by Karlos Manlupig

MANILA, Philippines – A military court on Tuesday, July 9, found a former battalion commander guilty of neglect in the 2011 Al-Barka fiasco in Basilan that led to the killing of 19 of his troops.

Declared guilty of violating Article of War 97 (neglect prejudicial to good order and military discipline) was Army Lt Col Leo Peña, former commander of the elite 4th Special Forces Battalion that was behind a fatal attack in Al-Barka, Basilan on Oct 18, 2011.

A general court martial said Peña will be punished with a two-year suspension from his command, a two-year freeze in promotion, and a reduction in rank by 200 files. Until his involvement in Al-Barka, Peña was one of the Special Forces’ rising stars.

READ: Fiasco in Basilan

The court martial decision will be subject to approval by the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen Emmanuel T Bautista.

Peña was in court at Camp Aguinaldo when the verdict was read. Asked to comment, Peña told reporters: “Dito ako natumba, dito di ako babangon.” (This is where I fell, this is where I will recover.)

The court found him not guilty, though, of the charge of violating Article of War 84, or misuse of military resources.

Peña was given the chance to defend himself during the trial, but his presentation was not made under oath, according to court sources. It was not clear why.

The Al-Barka fiasco led to the killing of 19 soldiers, one of the biggest blunders in Philipppine Special Forces history. In October 2011, the SF deployed a team of soldiers undergoing scuba training to Al-Barka, a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The rebels mounted a counter-attack that practically wiped out the Army troops and triggered calls from within the military for government to suspend talks with the MILF.

President Benigno Aquino III however stood his ground and proceeded with the talks. Peña’s conviction comes as both sides resume talks in Kuala Lumpur.

READ: Gov’t, MILF hope for a breakthrough

In January this year, a court martial also convicted Col Aminkadra Undug, commander of the Special Forces training school that approved the trainees’ deployment. Undug was also found guilty of violating Article of War 97. Bautista upheld the verdict on Undug.

Two other Army officers implicated in the fiasco —Col Alex Macario and Lt Col Orlando Edralin — were acquitted last Oct 30, 2012. – 

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