by Miriam G. Desacada
Charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives were filed yesterday at the City Prosecutor’s Office against an alleged community leader of the New People’s Army and four other young people who were caught and arrested during simultaneous raids of two safe houses in Tacloban City at dawn of February 7.
The military and the police, in a joint operation of implementing a search warrant, issued by the court, arrested 22-year-old Frenchie Mae Castro Cumpio, allegedly a secretary of the NPA Regional White Area Committee in Eastern Visayas.
The others who were arrested were Marielle Domequil, Alexander Philip Abinguna, Marissa Cabaljao, and Mira Legion. They were militant group members and former student leaders, like Cumpio who studied before at the University of the Philippines-Tacloban campus, according to the military.
The military alleged further that Cumpio was also a reporter of Eastern Vista, a pro-communist online publication.
Executive Judge Eligio Petilla of Regional Trial Court-Branch 44 in Tacloban was the one who issued the search warrant on Feb. 3. The raided houses were in Fatima Village, and one in Calanipawan Street, although it was not divulged where the weapons, explosives, and money were confiscated.
With the filing of the charges against them, top officials from both sides arrived in the city from Manila, held separate press conferences, traded accusations of illegalities, and threatened to raise the legal controversy to the national level.
Leftist leaders, led by lawyer Neri Colmenares, accused the military and the police of planting evidence against the arrested youths, who he called the Tacloban Five or the Leyte Five. He insisted that there were no solid pieces of evidence to pin them down on charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Government officials, on the other hand, countered that the implementation of the search and arrest were done above board and witnessed by barangay officials. They said they carried it out based on the search warrant issued by the court on February 3, considering the pieces of evidence presented by the military and the police at the time.
Major General Pio Dinioso III, commander of the 8th Infantry Division, denied the allegations of the planting of pieces of evidence that led to the arrest of the Tacloban 5. He instead accused the NPA of being the “planter” itself, saying the group possesses many landmines that they plant on the road to blow these up against the police, just like what happened in a barangay of Borongan City in Eastern Samar where a planted landmine exploded on the road and killed a civilian instead.”
“The NPA, however, does not care if it kills a civilian or anyone else, but it proved that the rebels are the ones who are good at planting. It’s not the government,” Dinioso said.
“The NPA has plenty of landmines they are planting along the barangay roads to kill government troops who happen to pass by. Some of these, including their firearms, are being kept in some of their safe houses, and we found these in two locations where the youths were arrested,” he told local reporters in a media conference yesterday.
He further said, “The firearms and explosives were found in those safe houses. It’s up to them (the Tacloban 5) to go to court and prove that those evidences were planted by the military. As of now, however, the firearms and explosives belong to them, until they can prove otherwise.”
Lawyer Marlon Basontong, legal officer of Task Force ELCAC who came from Manila, told reporters: “It’s easy for them (Tacloban 5) to say those firearms and explosives were planted by the military. It’s usual that no criminal will ever admit to the crime. So their counter is to say that they are not theirs and only planted against them. It’s so easy to say. It’s standard defense.”
He further said that authorities had applied for a search warrant from the court. “So there’s an element of neutrality here because the court cannot just grant a warrant without being supported by evidence.”
Basontong said the Tacloban 5 can file a complaint at the Ombudsman if they can prove that the authorities planted the pieces of evidence against them. “In the implementation of the search warrant, there were barangay officials as witnesses, who signed the documents of the seized firearms and explosives. So there is documentation and there are neutral and independent parties who witnessed the conduct of the search, and the arrest of the five people.”
He, however, empathized with the arrested youths. “We do not see these young people as criminals, but we see them as victims of the NPA. We see their families as victims as well, because we can see the impact of this on them. So I can say that we are at the losing end here, even the government. Because the function of the government is to protect these young people from false ideology,” the lawyer said.
“It just happened that, in the conduct of law enforcement, they were caught in possession of firearms and explosives. In that manner, the rule of law has to be followed. We have to file the case because that’s the mandate of the military: to implement the law,” he added.
In a separate press conference, lawyer Neri Colmenares insisted that the police and the military duped the court to believe there was evidence for the granting of a search warrant. “We will file a case against them. All those involved in the raid, including the CIDG, the regional mobile group, basta lahat sa kanila, may kaso yan sa Ombudsman,” he said.
“Hindi pwede mag plant ka ng baril, nobody will believe that kaya, para sa akin, these people are filing cases of illegal possession of firearms and explosives so that the arrested people could not apply for bail,” Colmenares said.
“If the evidence is lacking, then there should be no search warrant and that the arrested youths must be released immediately from detention,” he said.
Bayan Muna party-list Representative Ferdinand Gaite, a member of the Colmenares group, told reporters that circumstances and pieces of evidence leading to the arrest of the Tacloban 5 must be scrutinized. “This is a long process, we admit,” he told the media.
“Congress should investigate, look into what happened during the search and arrest, what are the basis for doing such, what are possible violations on the constitutional rights of the youths in the implementation of the search warrant. There are constitutional provisions on these, and we would like to see if these are not violated with the arrest of the five,” he said.
He further said that in their initial probe, “we already see some violations in the arrest, and we would determine who were involved in this violation. The full force of the law should be used against the authorities, not on the victims of the law immediately. We have to file cases at the Ombudsman, we have some measures to do against them. Until now, we are being harassed by this kind of militarization.”