GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/3 Nov) – Calling their cases “a straightforward violation of due process,” a Regional Trial Court (RTC) acquitted at least four persons who were arrested and charged more than eight years ago with two counts of illegal possession of explosives in connection with a deadly bomb attack in front of a department store here that killed 15 people and injured more than 50 others.
The decision earned the praise of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), who warned police against illegally arresting, detaining and torturing suspects and planting evidence.
In a 16-page decision dated September 10 but promulgated last October 29, RTC Branch 35 Judge Oscar Noel dismissed for lack of evidence the illegal possession of explosives charges filed under criminal cases 16055 and 16056 against Aron Sala, Jejhon Macalinsal, Abubakar Amilhasan and Arsul Ginta.
Three of the accused — Macalinsal, Amilhasan and Ginta — were found by the court to have been arrested illegally during a police raid on April 24, 2002 in Purok Lote, Barangay Calumpang and later charged with illegal possession of explosives using “planted” evidences.
The three, who were all members of the Bayan Muna partylist group and later earned the moniker the “GenSan Three,” showed evidences of being subjected to torture and other forms of physical abuse while under police custody.
“Finding the evidence for the prosecution insufficient to support conviction of all the accused beyond reasonable doubt, these cases against them are hereby dismissed,” Judge Noel noted in his decision.
Based on court records, the four were charged by the City Prosecution Office on June 18, 2002 for violation of Presidential Decree 1866, specifically for illegal possession of explosives, after police operatives supposedly found in their possession a 60mm mortar shell and a fragmentation grenade during the dawn raid.
The raid, which was led by then Region 12 police director Senior Supt. Bartolome Baluyut, was launched more than two days after a powerful bomb exploded at a baggage counter of the FitMart department store that left 15 people dead and 58 others wounded.
Baluyut had claimed that they traced the location of the supposed bombing suspects following a call made by one of them purportedly warning of more planted explosives to an unidentified telephone number with “caller ID” feature.
But in his affidavit, the caller, who turned out to be Macalinsal, testified that he was just forced to make the call at gunpoint by two unidentified persons who barged into the clinic of his cousin Napsalita Sala in Lote, Calumpang a day before the raid.
He said the armed men, who were reportedly wearing black pants, long sleeves, combat shoes and with their faces covered by bonnets, hastily left aboard a motorcycle after he made the call.
Around 3 a.m. the next day, court records said at least 30 policemen and Army personnel raided the compound where the clinic and three other houses and structures were located.
Macalinsal claimed the police operatives reportedly ordered him, Amilhasan and Ginta to get out of the houses and pulled them aside about 10 to 15 meters away while the raid was ongoing.
He said the raiding team did not present any search warrant or related document during the raid.
They were brought four hours later to the city and regional police headquarters at Camp Fermin Lira, where they were subjected to interrogation and forced to admit owning explosives and firearms that the police raiders claimed to have found in their possession, he noted.
Macalinsal testified that during his interrogation, he was mauled in several occasions and subjected to other forms of physical and mental abuse by several policemen who took turns in questioning him.
Macalinsal, who repeatedly denied owning the explosives and firearms as well as any involvement in the bomb attack, said they were later presented by Baluyut to the media as suspects in the FitMart department store blast.
Based on the prosecution’s records, Senior Police Officer 1 Rex Diongon, of the city police’s investigation and detective management section, claimed that he was among the police operatives who executed during the raid a search warrant issued by then acting Judge Antonio Lubao of the RTC Branch 22.
He cited in his affidavit that they found the fragmentation grenade and the 60mm mortar shell in a house allegedly owned by Aron Sala, whom they failed to arrest then.
Insp. Harrison Martinez, then operations chief of the city police, corroborated Diongon’s testimony saying they recovered from Sala’s house several “Ang Bayan leaflets, revolver caliber .38 SN 51173, one fragmentation grenade, one ammunition for mortar, about 2 kilos lead and several other subversive leaflets.”
But during the trial, he failed to properly identify Amilhasan and Macalinsal when they were presented to him.
Court records said Martinez claimed the raid was witnessed by Barangay Labangal councilors Sabina Castomayor and Jose Arrojo but later admitted that “they took the items not necessarily from the accused.”
Ginta claimed during the trial that he was forced at gunpoint by policemen led by Baluyut that they owned the recovered items and were involved in the bomb attack.
He claimed several policemen had approached him while in police custody and offered to drop all the charges against him in exchange for the payment of P150,000.
Amilhasan, who claimed that he was subjected to various forms of physical abuse while in the hands of police investigators, said he was coerced to admit that he was “Abu Muslim,” who was then tagged as the bomb blasts mastermind.
Sala, who was not present during the raid, presented evidences during the trial that he was attending his regular classes in Marawi City when the bomb blast happened and during the raid at their compound.
In his decision, Judge Noel noted that the constitutional rights of the accused were violated by the implementing officers during the raid.
He said court records showed that the search warrant described a house and lot owned by Aron Sala but cited that the evidences showed that there were three houses inside the compound and a clinic attached to one of the houses.
Noel said the witnesses for the prosecution have failed to categorically identify the house where they supposedly found the seized items.
He cited that the prosecution’s witnesses, specifically the members of the raiding team, did not deny the claims made by the accused that three men in bonnets dropped a sack “full of something” at one of the houses during the raid.
He said the court could not admit as evidences the statements made by the two civilian witnesses brought by the police raiders since they were not officials of the village where the raid was conducted.
Noel pointed out that the accused were not assisted by counsels of their own choice and did not waive their rights to counsel during the police investigation.
Owing to these findings, Noel said the evidences allegedly found by the police raiders at the scene were all deemed inadmissible in court and can’t find any reason to convict all the accused of the crime charged against them without due process.
Noel further ordered the cancellation of the bail posted by the accused for their temporary liberty in connection with the dismissed charges.
In a statement, the AHRC hailed the dismissal of the charges and at the same time urged the government to pursue the prosecution of Baluyut, who already retired from police service several years ago.
The group said Baluyut “had previous records of having involvement in illegally arresting, detaining, planting evidence and torturing persons arrested during police operations.”
The AHRC expressed hopes that the same judgment be rendered to the charges of illegal possession of firearms earlier filed against the four that is still pending before the Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC) Branch 3 here.
“The evidence that the policemen and the prosecutors used in this case was also planted; and used in the case in which the accused had already been acquitted from,” the group said.
Abina Rombaoa, a relative of one of the accused, said the court’s decision was a big relief for the families of the accused who have suffered for a long time because of the case.
She said Ginta’s wife died earlier this year after bearing for many years the burden of her husband’s case, his imprisonment and its overall impact on their lives.
“Clearly the four were just fall guys who were arbitrarily arrested and charged by the police of these crimes based on trumped-up evidences. They (police) did all these just to show that they accomplished something then and get them promoted to higher ranks later on,” she said. (Allen V. Estabillo / MindaNews)