DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 October) – Four years, no case, no justice.
Four years after the murder of Italian missionary Fausto “Pops” Tentorio in Arakan, North Cotabato by alleged members of a paramilitary group named “Bagani,” no case has been filed against the suspects and the witnesses are still in hiding for fear of retaliation .
The 59-year old Tentorio, parish priest of Arakan in North Cotabato who had been assigned there since 1985, was gunned down early morning of October 17, 2011, at the parish convent’s garage, felled by ten bullets from a 9 mm pistol while he was about to drive his Suzuki Jimny vehicle to attend the monthly Presbyterium in Kidapawan City, 52 kilometers away.
Tentorio, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) was the director of the Tribal Filipinos Apostolate of the Diocese of Kidapawan.
In his three-page letter to then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on September 15, 2015, Fr. Peter Geremia, assistant parish priest of Arakan and a member of the PIME, said that after the Special Investigation Team for Unsolved Cases (SITU) submitted its long-delayed final report to de Lima on May 26, 2015, “we were expecting immediate filing of the case. Instead, another indefinite delay continues up to now without any explanation.”
Geremia said the SITU “found sufficient circumstantial evidences to file charges versus Jimmy and Robert Ato and Jan Corbala, alias Kumander Iring, and four members of the “Bagani” group.
He said he sought and was granted an appointment by Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Director Virgilio Mendez on July 25 “but when I went to their office, I was told that both of them were out of town and they never gave me another appointment.”
Geremia told reporters after the “Biblio-Theological Reflection on the Occasion of the 4th Death Anniversary of Fr. Fausto Pops Tentorio” at the Ateneo de Davao University on October 13 that Baraaan sent him a text message on October 2, that he, the investigating team and Regional Proseccutor Al Calica will meet with them but no date or venue was mentioned.
MindaNews asked Baraan if cases had been filed against the suspects. In a text message on Friday morning (October 16), he said “A0 35 Special Oversight Team has recommended further investigation.”
“Evidence gathered merely circumstantial, and may not lead to conviction. This is the report relayed to me,” he said.
The SITU was set up under Administrative Order (AO) 35 issued by President Aquino on November 22, 2012, creating the “Inter-Agency Committee on Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture and other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Persons.”
It took 16 months, however, before the SITU on Fr. Tentorio’s murder, began its investigation.
The SITU scheduled an investigation on March 27, 2014 a the Regional Trial Court in Kidapawan City, apparently in response to the letter of then Kidapawan Bishop Romulo dela Cruz (now Archbishop of Zamboanga) to Justice de Lima dated January 17, 2014, informing her that many parishioners had been asking “Why can’t DOJ obtain justice in court for Fr. Pops and other victims like him?”
Dela Cruz said he was informed that the first investigation on the murder, conducted by the NBI, was “blocked and diverted and their key witnesses retracted their testimonies.”
“Why are the wheels of justice, apparently stuck? Is someone blocking or diverting the investigation again? How can we trust that justice is possible under the present administration?” he asked.
In response, De Lima, who as Justice Secretary was concurrent chair of the Inter-Agency Committee, wrote a memorandum on February 4, 2014 to Prosecutor Cabi Marohom, SITU in charge of the Tentorio case, reminding him that the case of Fr. Tentorio is “certainly one of the most prioritized by the leadership that sits in the Inter-Agency Committee” and therefore, “a speedy and thorough investigation is required.”
De Lima resigned as Justice Secretary effective October 12, to run for Senator under the administration’s Liberal Party.
But before she resigned, Geremia received no reply to his Sept. 15, 2015 letter to her. “As usual, way (no) reply from de Lima and USec Baraan.”
Two years ago, Gregorio Andolana, lawyer of the Diocese of Kidapawan, requested for further investigation following the retraction made by three witnesses. At the clarificatory hearings held in Arakan in July 2012, Geremia said witnesses presented by the NBI retracted their statements implicating brothers Jose and Dimas Sampulna, in effect clearing the Sampulna brothers.
“So now the accused are only the Ato brothers and the five Baganis headed by Jan Corbala, alias Kumander Iring,” Geremia said.
The Ato brothers, arrested in December 2011, are still under the custody of North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco (2nd Dist).
Jimmy Ato, who was whisked off to Cagayan de Oro City after his arrest in Kulaman, Arakan on December 29, 2011, was 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.
Dominador Damlayon, one of the witnesses who pointed to the Ato brothers as the culprits, later retracted the statement he signed before the NBI in Cagayan de Oro in December 2011. He claimed that a certain Loloy brought him to the NBI office in Cagayan de Oro City, and that he was forced to sign the prepared affidavit. The NBI denied Damlayon’s claim, adding they did not know any Loloy.
In his Sept. 15, 2015 letter to de Lima, Geremia said the SITU report identified Loloy as Nilo Siong Lanticse, that the SITU was “given more information on Loloy using the name of Joel Tapaes, was reportedly killed on June 24, 2014.”
Geremia said he wrote De Lima on May 26, 2014 requesting her to provide information on Loloy but his letter was “never acknowledged.”
“Soonafter, we were told by someone close to Loloy, that he was killed,” Geremia said.
Geremia told reporters witnesses have been kept waiting for four years. “They will now be target for revenge. They’ve sacrificed so much,” he said. In an earlier letter to de Lima
Only two witnesses have been placed under the Witness Protection Program (WPP), Geremia said.
Since Tentorio’s murder, Geremia had asked de Lima in a series of letters for assistance, among others, to ensure the protection of 27 witnesses and their family members who are in hiding for fear of retaliation.
Four years after Tentorio’s murder, Geremia said the “Bagani” has not been disarmed despite repeated demands. The military has continued to deny any link with the group even as, according to Geremia, “it is common knowledge in Arakan that this Bagani group was staying in the camp of the 10th Special forces and 57th IB in Sitio Kamanagan, Barangay Ganatan and that it is still their base up to now.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)