GenSan Court orders release of fish vendor mistaken for suspect in Ampatuan Massacre

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/14 Sept) —  Declaring it an apparent mistaken identity, a local court here ordered Tuesday afternoon the release of a detained fish vendor who was earlier tagged by local police authorities as among the suspects in the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 persons in Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Judge Oscar Noel of the Regional Trial Court Branch 35 said vendor Richard Rey Gofel was clearly not the fugitive massacre suspect Fahad Utto based on the established differences on their facial and physical features and that he should be released from prison.

But Judge Noel did not immediately issue a written order for Gofel’s release from the custody of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) pending the cancellation of a standing commitment order for the latter earlier issued by Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes in connection with the massacre case.

“Based on the evidences presented, this court was convinced that Richard Rey Gofel was not the same person as Maguindanao massacre suspect Fahad Utto and that he should be released from detention but I cannot issue a release order until the commitment order issued by Judge Reyes is quashed,” Noel said.

Lawyer Miguel Escobar, one of Gofel’s counsels, said they were satisfied with the court’s  decision despite its failure to immediately issue a written order for their client.

He explained that the RTC Branch 35 could not just issue an order that would pose conflict with the Quezon City RTC Branch 221 as both were “co-equal courts.”

“But since it was already proven that Gofel is not the subject massacre suspect, we can now seek to quash the commitment order issued by RTC Branch 221 against him,” Escobar told reporters.

Gofel appeared before the RTC Branch 35 on Tuesday afternoon, three weeks after the same court issued a writ of habeas corpus based on a petition filed by his wife Emilyn, who claimed that her husband was wrongfully arrested based on mistaken identity.

Gofel was initially arrested as a suspect in the Ampatuan massacre last August 17 by police operatives in Barangay Taluya in Glan, Sarangani but he was released later that day supposedly due to lack of evidence.

But elements from the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group-Region 12 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.

He said a witness had attested that Gofel was the person named in the warrant of arrest as suspect in the  massacre.

Austria was referring to the warrant of arrest issued by Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge -Reyes in connection with the massacre of 58 persons, including 32 media workers, in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

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.

The case of the 58th victim, Reynaldo Momay, photographer of Midland Courier in Tacurong City, has yet to be filed. Momay’s remains have not been found but for his dentures.

The Department of Interior and Local Government has placed a P250,000 reward for Utto’s arrest.

Gofel was brought to Manila on August 22 by CIDG officials for a scheduled arraignment at the Quezon City RTC Branch 221 and his commitment to the Camp Bagong Diwa jail in Bicutan, Taguig City.

On August 23, the RTC Branch 35 here issued a writ of habeas corpus for Gofel and ordered Supt. Bowenn Joey Masauding of the CIDG-12’s tracking team as well as the BJMP in Taguig to present the latter before the court within 48 hours.

BJMP-Taguig finally brought Gofel to this city on Tuesday morning aboard a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila and temporarily transferred his custody to BJMP personnel at the Lanton Reformatory Center here.

During the hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Gofel’s counsels, Escobar and Chalmer Gevieso presented evidences and testimonies of witnesses to prove Gofel’s identity.

Gevieso stressed that Gofel’s facial features clearly did not match with those of Utto based on the latter’s photo printed on the “Wanted” posters.

He said hundreds of Gofel’s neighbors in Purok Minanga in Barangay Buayan had also come  forward to prove his client’s real identity.

Gofel, who was also called to the witness stand, claimed he was punched in the head and legs in one instance by Supt. Masauding and a certain Chief Insp. Elvis Angay-angay of the CIDG while forcing him to confess that we was Fahad Utto.

“I did not give in to their accusations. I would never confess that I am Fahad Utto even if they kill me,” he told reporters in Filipino.

None among Gofel’s arresting officers or any official of the CIDG in Region 12 attended the hearing.

Gofel’s wife Emilyn burst into tears after hearing Judge’s Noel’s ruling on her husband’s case.

“They arrested and jailed an innocent man. I hope the CIDG will learn their lesson from this,” she said.

Gevieso said they expect Gofel to be finally released from the BJMP’s custody within the week.

“We’re immediately flying to Manila to present the RTC Branch 35’s decision regarding the habeas corpus case to Judge Reyes and file for the cancellation of the commitment order for Gofel,” he said.  (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)