Human Rights Watch to PNoy: Protect whistleblower-soldier, families of Trento 6

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 October) – The New York-based Human Rights Watch has asked the Aquino administration to protect a whistleblower-soldier who will testify tomorrow (October 29)  on the  murder ten years ago of six young men in Trento, Agusan del Sur, allegedly by soldiers.

In a press statement issued today, HRW, said former Sgt. Esequias Duyogan, who “risked his life for justice by testifying about a military atrocity,” is scheduled to testify in  a pre-trial hearing tomorrow (October 29) at the provincial prosecutor’s office in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur.

“The Aquino administration should act on its pledges of justice and human rights by taking all necessary measures to protect” Duyogan and the  families of the victims, HRW said.

HRW Deputy Asia Director Elaine Pearsons said the Aquino administration should protect the witness and his family “so that other brave soldiers will come forward when terrible crimes occur.”

On October 14, 2000,  friends Romualdo Orcullo, Jovencio Legare, Arnold Dangquiasan, Joseph Belar, Diosdado Oliver, and Artemio Ayala, attended a village fiesta when Army Cpl. Rodrigo Billones of the 62nd Infantry Battalion arrested them and took them to the nearby military camp. The families of the six have not seen them since.

In 2007, or seven years after the disappearance of the six, Duyogan came forward and narrated that after the arrest of the six, 12 soldiers from his unit beat them to death with an iron rod and buried them. Duyogan recounted that three days later, the soldiers dug up the bodies, loaded them on a service vehicle, and brought them to a remote area where they burned the corpses.

In July 2008, Corporal Billones was convicted by the Regional Trial Court in Agusan del Sur of kidnapping and serious illegal detention of the six men and sentenced him to nine to 15 years in prison for each of the six victims. He appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals.

In 2009, the families of the six slain men filed a case with the prosecutor alleging charges of multiple murder and kidnapping against the 12 other soldiers, including two officers.

HRW said Assistant Regional Prosecutor Vicente Abugho will question Duyogan and other witnesses tomorrow to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to file the charges in court.

HRW had earlier called on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to work with the Philippine National Police to protect the victims’ families. “Human rights defenders have told of several instances in which soldiers have harassed the family members and offered them money to drop the case,” the HRW press release said.

HRW added: “Military personnel and other unidentified individuals have threatened and harassed Duyogan, his family, and human rights defenders working with him on several instances since he came forward to testify. In August 2007, a military officer visited him at his Agusan del Sur home, purportedly at the behest of the divisional commander and offered him 200,000 pesos (US$4,600) to ‘go back to the folds of the military.’ Duyogan has not availed of the Justice Department’s witness protection program as he believes it lacks independence and fears it is not safe.”

HRW also said that despite the long prison sentence and the gravity of the crime committed,  Corporal Billones “lives with his wife and two children in a house outside of the fence surrounding the Agusan del Sur provincial jail, though within the prison compound.”

An official at the jail told HRW that the jail warden, a military reservist, had granted Billones this privilege out of “camaraderie.”

HRW said Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo should order an inquiry into Billones’ detention as “granting extraordinary privileges to soldiers convicted of serious crimes reinforces impunity and sends a message that abuses will go unpunished.”

HRW also urged Secretary de Lima to work with NGOs to assist in the protection of Duyogan and his family, and to direct the National Bureau of Investigation to promptly investigate instances of threat and harassment against those involved in the case.

The rights group also renewed calls on the Aquino administration to “create an independent, accessible, and properly funded witness protection program” and added that in exceptionally sensitive cases such as this, “the Philippine government should consider working with foreign governments to provide for safe relocation outside of the country.”

“If the Aquino administration acts in this case to ensure witnesses are properly protected, the prosecutors do their job, and that convicted soldiers do not receive privileges simply because of their military status – it will go a long way to overturning impunity,” the HRW press statement quoted Pearson as saying. (MindaNews)