Robredo’s death a big blow to fight for justice for Fr. Pops Tentorio

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/22 August) —  The unexpected death of  Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo has left a void not only in the campaign for good governance but also in the  fight for justice for slain Italian priest Fausto “Pops” Tentorio.

“Siya lang naga-reply sa requests sa taas” (He was the only one [among national officials] who responded to requests for assistance),  said Fr. Peter Geremia, who has been following up on the Tentorio case on behalf of the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and the Diocese of Kidapawan since the murder of the Arakan parish priest on October 17, 2011.

Ten months after Tentorio’s murder, 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 are in hiding for fear of retaliation.

Geremia told MindaNews he had repeatedly written Justice Secretary Leila de Lima but his letters went unanswered. One of the letters requested the Justice Secretary to coordinate with other agencies like the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG)  to ensure the protection of 27 witnesses and their family members who are in hiding for fear of retaliation and
to have the suspected culprits, the Bagani paramilitary group, disarmed.

“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 in mid-June.

He said they 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.”

Robredo’s response

While in Davao City attending the  two-day ARMM LGU Convention on Local Governance, MindaNews asked Robredo on June 19 if he had acted upon Geremia’s request coursed through de Lima but he said he wasn’t aware there was such a request.

He asked if it was possible to have breakfast with Geremia the next day, the second day of the Convention, but the latter could not leave Arakan, where he was assigned as acting parish priest, then.

Robredo went to the wake of Tentorio at the parish church in Arakan, North Cotabato, a few days after the murder.

Sec. Jesse Robredo at the wake of murdered Italian priest, Fausto Tentorio, in Arakan, North Cotabato in October 2011, accompanied by Rep. Nancy Catamco (Photo courtesy of Catamco's Facebook account)

On June 28, Kidapawan Bishop Romulo dela Cruz and Father Geremia waited at the Bishop’s House in Kidapawan, for a phone call Robredo promised to make.

That noon, Robredo assured them the police would provide security to the witnesses.

Immediately, Robredo ordered regional police director, Chief Supt. Alex Paul Monteagudo to ensure the witnesses’ protection.

Robredo told MindaNews he met with Justice Secretary de Lima also on June 28, apparently after the telephone conversation with Bishop dela Cruz and Geremia, and that both agreed to have a joint team from the Natioanal Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and Philippine National Police to review the conflicting testimonies.

Since that phone conversation on June 28, Robredo had repeatedly updated Geremia on the progress of  the case.

Regular updates

On Saturday evening, upon learning that Robredo’s plane had crashed off Masbate and the Secretary was declared missing, Geremia forwarded Robredo’s last text messages to him this month, the last one on the Bagani, the paramilitary group suspected to have killed Father Tentorio.

According to affidavits filed by new witnesses, the Bagain had attempted to kill Tentorio in a roadside ambush two days before killing him in the garage of his parish convent.

Robredo’s  last message to Geremia on August 9 was a forwarded message from the regional police director that he had directed the provincial director of the Philippine National Police in North Cotabato “to make plans to deal with the Bagani group” who are in the boundary of Bukidnon-Davao-North Cotabato.  “This may have to be implemented after the BIFF threats subside,” the message forwarded by Robredo said.

The BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) launched attacks on at least five military detachments in Maguindanao late evening of August 5, prompting military operations in pursuit of the armed group.  The BIFF forces were also reported to gone to some villages in Pikit, North Cotabato, triggering evacuations.

Earlier,  Robredo sent him this text message: “Have sked a DILG-DOJ meeting on August 3. Will keep you posted Father. Have directed PNP to give me an update on the Tentorio case.”

Robredo was referring to a meeting he sought with the Justice Secretary on the Tenorio case.

On August 4, a day after the supposed meeting, Robredo texted Geremia:  “Meeting did not push through Father. Dad of Sec. de Lima died, was buried yesterday.”

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.

Nabbed on the basis of a warrant of arrest for an arson case he was implicated in years ago, Ato 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.

Ato was arrested on December 29 but 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.

Sec. Jesse Robredo listening to parishioners in Arakan, North Cotabato, at the wake of Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio in October 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Nancy Catamco’s Facebook account)

Murder, attempted murder

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.

North Cotabato  prosecutor Jose Agerico de Guzman told MindaNews on June 29 that his office should not be blamed for the delay in filing the case in court. He said he 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 NBI investigation which was 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 was studying the complaints thoroughly to ensure there would be no miscarriage of justice. He said he was “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.”

As of August 22,  no case has been filed in court.

On August 20, a day before Robredo’s body was retrieved, Bishop dela Cruz scheduled a 5 p.m. mass on August 22 at the cathedral of the Our Lady Mediatrix of All Graces in Kidapawan “for the intention of DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo and companions.”

Dela Cruz will preside over the concelebrated mass at 5 p.m.

“I feel the loss of a government official who, in so short a time, gave us a glimpse of what good a government official can do. He is well admired in Cotabato Province and in the Diocese of Kidapawan,” the Bishop told MindaNews.

He said Robredo was supposed to return to North Cotabato on September 5 to welcome local government officials, from the barangay level  up to the provincial “led by the Governor and the GKK (Basic Ecclesial Communities) leaders and priests with their Bishop at the launching of a program called ‘Ugnayan ng Gobierno at Simbahan Tungo Sa Good Governance.” (Union of Government and Chruch for Good Governance).

“This may have to be reset due to what happened to the good Secretary,” the Bishop said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)