Who was it who said that the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine? In the case of the People of the Philippines versus Jovito Palparan, we can all agree for now that the prosecution of the retired major general once called the “Butcher” for the crimes of which he is accused has been anything but expeditious. As to whether that plodding process will indeed result in a just decision that can serve as an exemplar for similar human-rights cases in the country—well, we can always hope.
Hope—and continue to pay attention, because public scrutiny is the only thing that will keep the Palparan case from becoming another forgotten docket number in the Philippines’ notoriously slow and corrupt justice system. Take note that the former Army official’s trial for the kidnapping and illegal detention of two University of the Philippines students who remain missing until now got underway only last Monday, with the appearance of the prosecution’s first witness. That’s been half a year of waiting since his capture in August 2014. Add that to the over three years that Palparan spent in hiding to elude the warrant for his arrest, and the fact that the young women disappeared in June 2006 yet, and you realize that it has taken nine years before the trial can even formally begin. Nearly a decade just to get to this point: How screwed up is that?
Palparan stands accused of having had a hand in the abduction, rape, torture and disappearance of young activists Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, both of whom were allegedly kidnapped by elements of the Army 7th Infantry Division in Nueva Ecija then under Palparan. The man might not himself have participated in the actual abduction, but the prosecution says that not only did he know of the crime of his men, he also condoned it. The linchpin of the prosecution’s case is the first-hand testimony of Raymond Manalo, a farmer from Bulacan abducted on Valentine’s Day in 2006, who told the court that he was in the same stockade as the two women and personally saw the abuse and torture inflicted on them. More, that while under detention, he saw Palparan on two instances, the general even talking to him and at one point warning him to desist from being a communist sympathizer.
Manalo and his older brother Reynaldo were abducted by Palparan’s men in lieu of another brother of theirs who, the soldiers said, was a member of the New People’s Army. For one and a half years, the Manalo brothers were kept in detention, tortured and brought to a number of camps in Luzon. At Camp Tecson in San Miguel, Bulacan, Manalo said he was told by his captors to bring food to other prisoners, two of whom turned out to be Empeño and Cadapan. “He (Manalo) was able to see how they were tortured and sexually molested,” said lead prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera, describing Manalo’s court testimony. “He said they were hung upside down naked and pieces of wood were inserted in the private parts of the two students.” Manalo further testified that Cadapan had told him she was raped.
Another prisoner, Manuel Merino, was allegedly killed and burned by Palparan’s men in Camp Limay, Bataan. Manalo had been brought there along with Merino and the two women. After he was able to escape in August 2007, Manalo pinpointed the spot where Merino was buried for an investigative team that visited Limay in 2008. “At the site pinpointed by Raymond, charred human bones and yellow slippers were found,” Marie Hilao-Enriquez, chair of the human rights group Karapatan, said in a statement sent to the online news site InterAksyon.com. “Raymond recalled Manuel Merino had been wearing yellow slippers. This proved that Raymond Manalo’s statement is undisputable.”
It looks that way at this point. But anyone remotely familiar with the local justice system knows that the byzantine and interminable ways of Philippine criminal proceedings can, in the end, still make short shrift of even the strongest and rationally unassailable first-hand testimonies. Stranger things have happened to similarly high-profile cases, so it’s imperative for the government prosecutors in this case to ensure that they do not drop the ball along the way. Just as Palparan deserves a robust defense by his lawyers, the People’s case against him for crimes of the most heinous order deserves the fullest, most exacting execution—the kind that would live up to the notion of the wheels of justice as, however sluggish, also grinding exceedingly fine.