Police, activists clash over Dutch’s murder

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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(UPDATED) Police officials suspect a robbery while activists claim the killing of Dutch NGO worker Wilhelm Geertman was politically motivated

(UPDATED) MANILA, Philippines – Was it a political killing or plain robbery?

For activist groups, Dutch missionary Wilhelm Geertman was killed Tuesday, July 3, due to his work for the farmers of Central Luzon. In the eyes of the local police, however, an unidentified gunman most probably killed Geertman for money. (Read: Dutch missionary shot dead in Angeles.)

Geertman, who lived in the Philippines for more than 4 decades, served as the executive director of Alay-Bayan Luson Inc (ABI), a group that helps communities in Northern and Central Luzon in disaster management. He is also described as an anti-mining and environmental activist.

Geertman didn’t receive specific death threats weeks or days before his killing, said ABI chair Joseph Canlas, who has known him for over a decade now. The missionary’s work for oppressed farmers, however, could have led to his death, Canlas said.

He said the lives of activists, in the first place, are always at risk.

Hindi nawawala ‘yung banta ng rehimen sa ilalim ng kanyang programa mula sa Oplan Bantay-Laya ni Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hanggang sa Oplan Bayanihan ni Noynoy Aquino,” Canlas explained in a phone interview with Rappler. (The regime’s threats remain, from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Operation Bantay Laya to Noynoy Aquino’s Operation Bayanihan.)

Asked if Geertman’s organization had received death threats in the past, Canlas recounted an instance that aroused fear in ABI members. That was when a person, who didn’t identify himself and was riding a motorcycle without a plate number, went to their office to give an invitation to a military forum.

Simpleng invitation pero ang aming tantya ay para matukoy ang mga miyembro ng opisinang ito,” Canlas said. “May tingin kami na inaral na ang galaw ng mga taga-opisinang ito.” (It was a simple invitation but we see it as a move to identify the members of this office… We think they have studied the moves of those from our office.)

The activities of Geertman’s group, ABI, include relief and medical missions, livelihood projects, environmental protection. Because the group works with farmers, however, its members also personally involve themselves in more political issues such as land-grabbing, according to Canlas.

On Wednesday, June 4, The Philippine Star said Geertman reportedly assists farmers of Hacienda Luisita, a controversial estate owned by President Benigno Aquino III’s family. Canlas did not discount the killing’s link to the hacienda located in Central Luzon.

Posible ‘yan dahil nga sa buong Central Luzon ang program (ng ABI),” said Canlas, who did not give specifics. (That is possible because ABI’s program covers the whole of Central Luzon.)

On the police’s assertion that the case could be a simple robbery, Canlas said he suspects a cover-up.

ANOTHER POLITICAL KILLING? Police officials suspect a robbery in the case of Wilhelm Geertman (fourth from the left). Photo courtesy of CDRC

‘Based on evidence’

The Philippine National Police (PNP), however, said it prefers to stick to the evidence gathered so far.

Police Supt Luisito Magnaye, the police chief of San Fernando, Pampanga, said authorities have only gathered two basic pieces of information: first, Geertman was shot; and second, he was also robbed.

For now, Magyane said, authorities therefore see either murder with robbery or robbery with murder.

Based on initial reports, Geertman came from the bank when he was shot. Magnaye, however, said the police are still verifying this information as well as the specific amount he supposedly withdrew from the bank.

Various reports say Geertman was carrying P1.2 million when he was killed, but Magnaye said this information remains unverified.

He also downplayed the supposed political motive for the killing. “Wala pa kaming nakukuhang witness na ganyan ang sinasabi, na kagagawan ng military,” Magnaye said. (We haven’t had a witness who says it was the military’s handiwork.)

He said the San Fernando police closely handles Geertman’s case because it happened in the area of San Fernando bordering Angeles City, Pampanga.

The government has created a special investigation group to look into the case.

‘Not related’

The Palace, for its part, downplayed the killing’s link to Hacienda Luisita. “It doesn’t appear to be so,” said Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda when asked if the murder is connected to the controversial estate.

Lacierda also said authorities are banking on CCTV footage for further evidence. He said the special investigation group is now “in the process of identifying the vehicle and the assailants.”

Sought for comment, the Embassy of Netherlands in the Philippines declined to issue a statement. Its media officer said their policy is not to speak on such issues.

Co-workers describe Geertman as a Dutch national who can fluently speak Filipino. “Kaya ang mga mamamamayan na napupuntahan niya, ‘yung mga magsasaka at mga katutubo, madali niyang maintindihan,” Canlas said. (That’s why he finds it easy to relate to the farmers and indigenous people he works with.) — Rappler.com


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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com