Quinciano Bueno, CHR Region 12 director, said they will coordinate with various law enforcement agencies to help establish the possible suspects and motives behind the killing of Eliezer Billanes, secretary-general of the militant South Cotabato People's Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy (SOCPAND).
“(The CHR) strongly condemns this brutal and inhumane act. We are urging our authorities to investigate this properly and bring the perpetrators to justice so this will not happen again here,” he said.
The CHR, along with members of a newly-formed multisectoral Justice for Billanes Coalition composed of religious, business and militant groups as well as some political leaders, staged an indignation rally late Tuesday at the same spot where he was killed.
Billanes, 46, was gunned around 4:30 p.m. Monday by two motorcycle-riding suspects in front of a newspaper stand near the public market in Koronadal City.
One of the suspects, whose faces were partially covered, shot Billanes once in the head at close range and immediately sped away from the scene aboard a "sports-type" Honda 200R motorcycle bearing plate number MJ5432.
The Koronadal City police station released on Tuesday a cartographic sketch of the suspected gunman, based on accounts by a lone witness.
Supt. Froilan Quidilla, Koronadal City police chief, described the suspect as an "Ilonggo-speaking" man with heavy built and about 5'7" tall.
Peter Arvin Jabido, convenor of the South Cotabato light-a-candle movement, said the circumstances of Billanes' killing showed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines' (AFP) intelligence agents may be involved in the incident.
A few hours before Billanes was killed, he and several barangay officials of Mabini in Koronadal met with 1Lt Eduardo Florentino of the 27th Infantry Battalion (IB) for a supposed dialogue that was eventually cancelled.
A Karapatan documentation report, however said the meeting – a dialogue where Billanes spoke about threats to his security allegedly from the military, among others, pushed through from 9 a.m. to 12 noon of March 9, between Billones and Florentino and three barangay officials at the barangay hall in Mabini.
Jabido said Billanes had raised strong opposition regarding the presence of the 27IB in their village.
The Army unit was part of the troops deployed earlier to hunt down the New People's Army (NPA) rebels who attacked the town proper of Tampakan in South Cotabato in late January.
“They clearly know his whereabouts and they have the motive to do it,” Jabido claimed.
But Florentino, in an interview over Radio Mindanao Network, denied any hand in the killing, saying he would not even dare harm Billanes since “he was a good man.”
“I met him several times since last year and our dialogues have been very productive,” he said.
Florentino, who heads the Charlie company of the 27IB, said the murder could be another propaganda by the NPA to divert the AFP's pursuit operations against them in the boundaries of Sultan Kudarat and South Cotabato.
“They may have done this to further justify their calls for our withdrawal from the area,” he said.
South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Avance-Fuentes, who declared she would personally look into the killin
g of Billanes, cautioned local cause-oriented groups from hastily pointing the blame at anybody without even conducting an investigation.
“I don't think the military (is) stupid enough to order his killing just a few hours after actually meeting with him,” she said.
But Fuentes said she will look into reports that Billanes had been subjected to surveillance by supposed government agents before he was killed.
“I strongly condemn this act. I hope this will not lead to the start of extra-judicial killings here in South Cotabato,” she added.
Edward Flores, spokesperson of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)-Socsksargen, confirmed that Billanes was under surveillance by unidentified men visiting their community and asking for his whereabouts a week before he was killed.
A MindaNews source said Billanes confided during a rally of public school teachers in Koronadal City on Wednesday last week that several government intelligence agents were reportedly tailing him and felt they may be out to get him.
Three years ago, Billanes' name, along with four other local activists, surfaced in an alleged target list of the Intelligence Services of the AFP (ISAFP).
The list reportedly included Gilbert Cardeno, a former Bayan Muna regional coordinator who was earlier abducted by alleged government intelligence agents but was later released upon the intervention of local officials and Catholic church leaders.
“We hold the military responsible for the killing of Billanes. The military, particularly the 27IB of the Philippine Army, is now active conducting community forums in Tampakan, South Cotabato wherein they tag anti-mining groups like AGENDA and progressive organizations as communist fronts. They even accused the church as having been infiltrated by the NPA,” he said.
Aside from SOCPAND, Billanes was also chair of the anti-mining group Socsksargends-AGENDA or the South Cotabato-Sultan Kudarat-Sarangani-General Santos-Davao del Sur Alliance for Genuine Development.
The Socskargends-AGENDA has been opposing the proposed large-scale copper and gold mining operations in the tri-boundaries of South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur provinces of Sagittarius Mines, Inc., a mining company backed by Swiss miner Xstrata Copper.
“We demand justice for Billanes. We urge the Koronadal City police and the entire Philippine National Police-Region 12 to conduct a thorough investigation and punish the perpetrators the soonest time possible,” he added. (Allen V. Estabillo / MindaNews)