Almost two years since a baffling report by a joint fact-finding panel of the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation cleared the military of any liability for the unfortunate deaths in a Leyte forest of top botanist Leonard Co and two of his aides, the Commission on Human Rights has restored the balance on the side of reason and justice.
On Tuesday, the CHR released the findings of an investigation it had conducted, and recommended both criminal and administrative charges against eight soldiers and their officers for killing Co, a prominent University of the Philippines scientist doing biodiversity work for the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp., and his companions Sofronio Cortez, a forest guard, and Julius Borromeo, a guide.
The CHR investigation found that there was in fact no fire fight between the Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion and the communist New People’s Army, as the Armed Forces had alleged; that all the shots had in fact been fired from one direction, coming from where the soldiers had positioned themselves; that Co, Cortez, Borromeo and two others who managed to survive were in fact mistaken for communist rebels—and that Borromeo’s life could have been saved, if only he had been given immediate medical attention instead of undergoing military interrogation.
“There was a failure to distinguish civilians from alleged combatants,” the CHR concluded. “There was a failure to provide prompt medical attention to the wounded victim who died as a result.”
CHR chair Loretta Ann Rosales later told the Inquirer: “The truth is, there was no legitimate encounter because it was one-sided, there was no exchange of fire.”
Many came to the same conclusion soon after the news broke, in the middle of November 2010, that Co and his companions had been killed—in large part because of the testimony of the two survivors. As we noted in this space on Nov. 22, 2010: “Unfortunately for the military’s version of the story, two more of Co’s companions survived, and their eyewitness accounts are not only riveting; they are different from the AFP’s.” Guide Policarpio Balute, for example, recounted that the party had been cracking jokes while engaged in work (it was raining that day) when they heard gunshots; they fell to the ground to avoid being hit. There was no answering fire, Balute said.
A December 2010 investigation by a team of scientists found that there was no evidence of a fire fight; rather, all the shooting was directed at the exact spot where Co’s team was. The CHR’s own investigation reached the same conclusion. In other words, two independent fact-finding sorties validated the testimony of the survivors; the bullets came from only one direction.
Astoundingly, the DOJ-NBI report of January 2011 concluded that a nonexistent NPA force had killed Co and his companions, because the bullets apparently traced a flat trajectory. The DOJ-NBI panel even blamed the Energy Development Corp. for failing to take the necessary precautions to provide for the safety of Co’s team, when in fact the company, which had hired Co to help with its reforestation project, waited for what it called “positive confirmation” from the Armed Forces before green-lighting the team’s entry into the area.
“This was a tragedy that should not have happened if the [military] had been more diligent in observing international humanitarian law in protecting the lives and safety of civilians,” the CHR noted in its Tuesday statement.
We laud the commission for pursuing the investigation, but note that it is now the Department of Justice that finds itself in a virtual crossfire. What will it do with the CHR’s recommendations? Will it reinvestigate the incident, and postpone the moment of reckoning? Or will it accept the CHR’s conclusions and file criminal charges as soon as practicable?
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, herself a former CHR chair, must know the true implications of inaction or indecision; the same culture of impunity which the administration she belongs to inherited upon assuming office in 2010 feeds on fear. The fear of crossing allies in the military, the fear of displeasing officers of the court and agents of the law, even the fear of spending precious political capital—all these help violators get away with murder.