Missing person presented to court in reply to ‘writ of amparo’ petition

The counsels of the respondents to the petition, led by representatives from the Office of the Solicitor General, brought Bustamante to the RTC Branch 13 sala where he met his family and friends.

He was in the custody of Noli Obat, commander of the Alsa Lumad Balogo Warriors, since Oct. 27 after he was taken from his companions at a military checkpoint in the area.

Judge Isaac Robillo ordered Lt. Col. Alexander Ambal of the Army’s 73rd Infantry Battalion to provide protection for Luicito, who decided to stay in Obat's custody.

The judge said the Supreme Court has not yet accredited any individual or organization to provide protection in cases concerning a petition for writ of amparo.

Bustamante's immediate release from the custody of Obat and the other respondents was the major prayer in the petition for writ of amparo filed on Nov. 7 by Bebelita Bustamante, Luicito's mother.

The petition, assisted by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Davao City chapter, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao, was considered a test case of the new Supreme Court rule, a measure intended to protect the missing person from becoming a victim of extrajudicial killings or becoming a desaparecido (victim of forced disappearance).

Bebelita and Luicito's sister Lolita told MindaNews they were happy to see him back and alive.

But Luicito told the court he preferred to stay with Obat when asked by the judge to choose whom to go with after the hearing, Obat or his mother.

He took the witness stand when her mother's counsels asked him to clarify his decision.

Bustamante admitted in the hearing that he signed an affidavit declaring he was a member of the New People's Army and that he was returning to the folds of law.

The Bustamantes, through their counsels, denied he was a combatant of the rebel group and was only "coerced and intimidated" to sign the affidavit.

Aside from Obat, other respondents of the petition included President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, AFP Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon, 10th Infantry Division chief Maj. Gen. Ernesto Boac, Ambal and Task Force Davao commander Allan Luga.

The President was represented by counsels from the Office of the Solicitor General in Manila.

In her Nov. 7 petition, Luicito's mother claimed that her son was restrained of liberty.

She recounted that at around 6 p.m. on Oct. 27, her son and three other companions were aboard a motorcycle bound for Sitio Quarry in Malabog village in the city's upland district of Paquibato.

They were supposed to distribute hand bills for Ederlita Lorenzana, a candidate for the barangay election. Obat reportedly stopped them at the "Task Force" checkpoint at a junction.

After interrogation, Luicito's companion were reportedly allowed to leave, but Bustamante was held "for further interrogations".

The petition claimed Luicito was "forcibly" brought to the "Task Force" camp in nearby Sitio Balogo. The camp referred to was identified by the petitioners as under the Army’s 73rd Infantry Batallion. They have not seen nor heard of her son's whereabouts since, Bebelita said.

But Luicito told a different story at the witness stand.

He said he voluntarily sought refuge in Obat's custody for "protection." He said he was not forced to be in Obat's custody but allegedly "volunteered" to be there in the light of his alleged surrender to the government.

His testimony caused his family and friends to react.

"Why are you not telling the truth," sister Lolita said, shedding tears. Lawyer Carlos Isagani Zarate noted Luicito's delayed responses when his mother was trying to stress that Luicito did not sign the affidavit voluntarily.

In the end, after adjournment of the proceedings, Luicito, with a smile, decided to go with his family, informing both counsels that he changed his mind.

Outside the court room, Bebelita was pulling Luicito from Obat. "Uban na sa amo, dong. Ayaw kahadlok," (Come with us, son. Don't be afraid) Bebelita told her son while crying.

Obat, identified in the petition as a military man, admitted to MindaNews he was the commander of the paramilitary group Alsa Lumad Balogo Warriors.

During the hearing, Robillo ordered Ambal to ensure that Bustamante would be unharmed. He clarified that Bustamante is a "free man," so the nature of the order should be "protective but not restrictive."

Ambal clarified that based on Robillo's order, Luicito, as a free man, could visit his mother anytime and should be afforded protection by the military wherever he goes.