8 months after Fr. Tentorio’s murder: no case filed in court, witnesses in hiding

KIDAPAWAN  CITY (MindaNews/01 July) – Eight months after the October 17 murder of  Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, the Italian parish priest of Arakan, North Cotabato,  no case has been filed with the courts, the complaint for murder filed before the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office in Kidapawan City in February is still undergoing preliminary investigation and witnesses have gone into hiding for fear of retaliation.

Since October 17, only one suspect has been arrested and is presently detained at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) regional office in General Santos City:  Jimmy Ato, who was whisked off to Cagayan de Oro City after his arrest in Culaman, Arakan on December 29 and  presented to the media by the NBI regional office there as the triggerman.

Ato, who was nabbed on the basis of a warrant of arrest for an arson case he was implicated in years ago, denied the NBI’s allegation four days later in an interview with reporters, but admitted he served as lookout in the killing of the Italian priest.

In the last eight months, however, new evidences have been presented to the Diocese of Kidapawan, pointing to a paramilitary band as the culprits. According to affidavits filed by new witnesses, the same group attempted to kill the priest in a roadside ambush two days before killing him in the garage of his parish convent.

On behalf of the complainants and private prosecutors, Fr. Peter Geremia, also of the PIME like Tentorio, asked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in a series of letters, for assistance, among others, to ensure the protection of 27 witnesses and their family members who are presently in hiding for fear of retaliation.

“We made urgent requests to Secretary de Lima such as expand investigation to other suspects and masterminds,  witness protection program for new witnesses  and families (and) coordinate investigations and security measures  with all concerned agencies in order to defuse fear and to promote a climate of peace,” Geremia told MindaNews.

He said they have received “no reply to our letters and requests” although he acknowledged De Lima met with them and the Italian ambassador in her office on April 26 where it was agreed that a case conference in Kidapawan would be held “to unify the conflicting testimonies.”

Geremia wrote de Lima again on May 18 and 29 but he has yet to receive an answer from the Justice Secretary.

“We have reason to believe that influential people are blocking and diverting the investigations and  security measures,” Geremia said. He did not name the “influential people.”

Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo assured Kidapawan Bishop Romulo dela Cruz and Geremia in a telephone conversation last Thursday that the police would provide security to the  witnesses.

Robredo told MindaNews he has ordered regional police director, Chief Supt. Alex Paul Monteagudo to ensure the witnesses are protected. Monteagudo years ago served as police chief of North Cotabato.

Although Ato was arrested on December 29, it took the NBI nearly 45 days before a complaint for murder was filed in mid-February against him, his brother Roberto and the Sampulna brothers Joe and Dima

The complaint was based on the joint probe of the NBI regional offices in Koronadal, Cagayan de Oro and Davao in coordination with the Special Investigation Task Group Fausto of the Philippine National Police in Region 12.

But on April 23, private prosecutors led by the Diocese of Kidapawan’s counsel, Gregorio Andolana, filed a complaint not only for murder but also attempted murder against the Ato brothers and the Bagani paramilitary elements Jan Corbala alias Kumander Iring, Neneng Durado, Kaing Labi, Joseph Basol and Edgar Enoc for having “conspired, confederated and helped one another”  in attempting to murder Tentorio on October 15 as he was going down from a funeral mass in Barangay Dalag and in murdering him as he was about to board his vehicle in his parish convent early morning of October 17.

In a telephone interview last Friday, North Cotabato  prosecutor Jose Agerico de Guzman told MindaNews his office should not be blamed for the delay in filing the case in court. He said he has even created a panel of prosecutors to expedite the filing of the case.

But de Guzman said the problem is that some suspects cited in the investigation conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the basis for filing the complaint in February, are not in the list of suspects in the complaint filed by the private prosecutors. He said witnesses affidavits’ in the private prosecutors’ complaint implicated other people who were not part of the NBI’s list of suspects, and that one witness in the complaint filed by the NBI, retracted his statement in an affidavit attached to the private prosecutors’ complaint.

He said the panel is studying the complaints thoroughly to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice. He said he is “apprehensive that if we file the information (for murder and attempted murder) and evidence against these people are not strong enough, the case will be dismissed in the end” and “we will be blamed again.”

Robredo told MindaNews he met with Justice Secretary de Lima last Thursday and that both agreed to have a joint team from the NBI and Philippine National Police to review the conflicting testimonies.

In his May 1 update posted on the PIME website on May 7, Geremia said they met with Secretary de Lima and top NBI officials on April 26 in the presence of the Italian ambassador and presented “new evidence pointing to a paramilitary group along with a team of hired killers as the actual executioners.”

He said they are still looking for more evidence to identify the masterminds and that they also found some witnesses “were forced to give false information in order to divert the investigation from the real planners and executioners.”

Geremia listed what they asked of the Justice Secretary: for her to instruct the NBI to “unify the conflicting testimonies and to include the new  evidence;” that the investigations be extended to other suspects and that the masterminds be identified; that the participation of the military should also be investigated “to identify who had command  responsibility on the group allegedly assigned to do the killing or who gave the go signal to the masterminds;” that security of the witnesses in hiding – a “total of 27 persons” be assured and they be placed under the Witness Protection Program.

Geremia also presented a petition from the people in Arakan requesting “that the paramilitary group involved be disarmed and the Special Forces be pulled out because of many documented reports  of threats and human rights violations which keep the population in state of fear and  that’s the main cause why  other witnesses are still afraid to come out in the open.”

MindaNews sought de Lima for comment but she had not responded as of  6 p.m. Sunday.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)