GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/23 August) – A court here granted Tuesday a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus for a local fish vendor who was arrested by police operatives here last week in connection with the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre.
Regional Trial Court Branch 35 Judge Oscar Noel ordered the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG)- Region 12 during a hearing Tuesday morning to present before the court within 48 hours vendor Richard Gofel, who was earlier tagged by police officials as massacre suspect Fahad Utto.
The court also directed the immediate release of Gofel, who was brought by the CIDG to Manila on Monday, from the custody of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Taguig City to facilitate his return to this city and scheduled court appearance at 2pm on Thursday.
Noel issued the order in response to the petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus filed on Monday by Gofel’s wife Emilyn, who claimed that her husband was wrongfully arrested based on mistaken identity.
Lawyer Chalmer Gevieso, Gofel’s counsel, told MindaNews that the RTC Branch 35 specifically directed Supt. Bowenn Joey Masauding of the CIDG-12’s tracking team to present his client’s “living body” before the court.
He said Masauding served as Gofel’s escort when the latter was flown to Manila on Monday morning aboard a Philippine Airlines flight.
Gofel was initially arrested as a suspect in the Ampatuan massacre last August 17 by the CIDG-12’s tracking team led by Masauding in Barangay Taluya in Glan, Sarangani but he was released later that day supposedly due to lack of evidence.
But the CIDG operatives arrested Gofel anew the following day at his residence in Purok Minanga in Barangay Buayan here after he was allegedly positively identified by a witness as suspect Fahad Utto, who was listed as a member of the Civilian Volunteer Organization in Shariff Aguak town in Maguindanao.
Senior Supt. Pedro Austria Jr., CIDG Region 12 chief, earlier said the facial features of Gofel allegedly matched with those of Utto based on the latter’s photographs posted in the Ampatuan massacre’s wanted list.
The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) had placed a P250,000 reward for Utto’s arrest.
“Our verification showed that he was the one named in the warrant of arrest as suspect in the Maguindanao massacre,” Austria told reporters.
The police official was referring to the warrant of arrest issued by Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes in connection with the massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao on November 23,
The Department of Justice earlier filed 57 counts of murder charges against Andal Jr., former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Sr., suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, former acting Maguindanao Gov. Sajid Ampatuan, several other members of the clan and 189 civilian volunteers and militiamen in connection with the massacre.
But Gevieso stressed that Gofel’s facial features clearly did not match with those of Utto based on the latter’s photo that was printed in the massacre’s wanted posters.
“The shape of their forehead alone is very much different. Utto’s forehead is rounded while Gofel’s is quite elongated and bony. They have many other differences in their facial features and you don’t need an expert to spot them,” he said in a telephone interview.
Gevieso said hundreds of Gofel’s neighbors in Purok Minanga in Barangay Buayan have also come forward to prove his client’s real identity.
He said they backed Gofel’s claims that he originally hails from Glan town in Sarangani but has settled the last eight years in Purok Minanga.
Gevieso said a contractor from the area identified as Rafael Tumulak attested that Gofel was under his employ as a welder from 2008 to 2010 for three major housing projects in the city.
“He has never stepped foot even in Marbel (Koronadal City) his entire life, more so in Maguindanao,” he said.
Last Saturday, an estimated 500 officials and residents of Purok Minanga arrived aboard three 10-wheeler trucks at the CIDG-12 headquarters at the Camp Fermin Lira here to protest Gofel’s arrest.
The group staged anew a picket in front of the CIDG compound on Monday morning before Gofel was brought to Manila.
Another truckload of residents from Purok Minanga accompanied Gofel’s family for the writ of habeas corpus hearing Tuesday morning at the RTC Branch 35 here.
During the writ of habeas corpus hearing, Gevieso said City Prosecutor Edilberto Jamora censured the CIDG-12 for allegedly “presenting to him a different picture of Utto” prior to Gofel’s arrest.
“The fiscal’s office manifested to the court that it is opposed to provide any representation to the CIDG-12 in matters concerning Gofel’s case,” he said.
Gevieso said Austria and other CIDG-12 officials did not attend the hearing but sent CIDG-Sultan Kudarat investigating officer Senior Insp. Teody Condeza to represent them.
During the hearing, Gevieso said they received a copy of an order from Quezon City RTC Branch 221 scheduling Gofel’s arraignment on August 25.
The lawyer said he is planning to go to Manila on Wednesday to inform the court of the developments regarding the writ of habeas corpus case here and seek for the suspension of the scheduled proceedings against Gofel on the grounds of a mistaken identity. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)