DAVAO CITY (MindaNews /18 September) — Three government agencies have deployed teams to Patikul, Sulu to investigate the September 14 alleged massacre of seven fruit pickers who the military claimed were Abu Sayyaf members killed in an encounter.
In the House of Representatives, the Makabayan bloc and the chair of the House Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity on Tuesday filed a resolution urging its Committee on Human Rights to conduct an investigation, in aid of legislation, “on the killing of seven Tausug youth by elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Patikul, Sulu.”
AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon and Abdulnasser Badrudin, chair of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Regional Human Rights Commission (ARMM-RHRC) told MindaNews on Tuesday that they have already deployed probe teams to Patikul.
Galvez said a team from the Inspector General Office was “activated yesterday (Monday)” to “ensure that all raised issues will be answered.”
The military has claimed that the seven victims were Abu Sayyaf members killed in an encounter but families of the victims claimed they were civilians harvesting mangosteen fruits. A university professor said it may have been a case of mistaken identity.
Gascon said they “mobilized a joint team from Central Office and Region 9 (Western Mindanao or the Zamboanga Region) to go to Sulu” in coordination with the ARMM’s RHRC.
He said two persons from the Central Office “left this morning for Zamboanga and were told to proceed ASAP to Sulu.”
Badrudin said his team is already in Sulu “to gather data regarding the incident” and meet the victim’s families.
The Makabayan Bloc’s party list representatives Carlos Isagani Zarate (Bayan Muna), Emmi De Jesus and Arlene Brosas (Gabriela), Sarah Jane Elago (Kabataan), Antonio Tinio and France Castro (ACT Teachers), Ariel Casilao (Anakpawis); Tawi-tawi Rep. Ruby Sahali, who chairs the House Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, and Zambales Rep. Cheryl Deloso-Montalla, introducted Resolution 2186 urging the Human Rights committee to probe what happened in Patikul.
Sahali wrote on her Facebook page that she “took a stand and affixed my signature” on the House Resolution for a probe “to bring light to this darkness that befell Patikul.”
“I have personally spoken to the generals to get their side of the story and I understand that the AFP stands firm with their report that this was a ‘legitimate encounter,’ and that these youths are indeed members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, but we cannot also deny the fact that lives were lost and that there are mothers who are grieving in their sleep for their lost sons. They too need answers,” Sahali said.
“There are indeed two sides of the story, and this investigation called upon in aid of legislation will give us the context in favor of justice and peace,” she added.
Early Tuesday morning, Western Mindanao Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said they would welcome a “third party, neutral investigation” even as he maintained the seven were Abu Sayyaf members killed in an encounter.
“We are open for a third party, neutral investigation and they can look at our records even the time before the encounter happened,” Besana said in response to MindaNews’ queries.
Besana had earlier told MindaNews what happened Friday was an encounter with Abu Sayyaf members and that it could not have been a case of mistaken identity because the seven allegedly fought it out for 1.5 hours.
A press release from Besana’s office on Saturday said the troops recovered from the encounter site “one M16 rifle, four 5.56 mm magazines, one bandolier, one touchscreen cellular phone, and assorted war materiel and ammunitions.”
“If there was an encounter as you said there was and you said the seven fought it out for 1.5 hours, why did the troops recover only ‘one M16 rifle, four 5.56 mm magazines, one bandolier, one touchscreen cellular phone, and assorted war materiel and ammunitions?'” MindaNews asked Besana.
His reply: “As to recovered war materials (sic), kasama na doon assorted ammunitions and spent shells. Marami M203 grenade 40mm, M14, etc, IED components as well. That indicates not just few firearms. We do not expect all firearms can be recovered all the time. Imagine an hour and 1/2 battle … so many things can happen. The enemy can retrieve all their firearms leaving behind just dead bodies. Which they usually do.”
“I’m sure people will know that helicopter gunships flew several sorties to deliver rockets to them, inflicting more casualties,” he said.
Asked if the high school student among the slain seven was a member of the Abu Sayyaf as alleged by the military, Besana replied: “As to a ‘high school student,’ we cannot tell. The (encounter site) is a hotbed lair of the ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group). Most of the people there involved failed to go to school. If the really are school goers, it was a Friday, probably they are supposed to be in school. Not unless they follow the Arabic calendar that Friday is a holiday. And besides, high school kids seldom go to such places.”
Citing accounts from the victims’ families, Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Bangsamoro) in its September 15 statement said the seven — aged 18 to 32 — “were allowed by the military detachment to go to Sitio Tubig Bato, Barangay Kabuntakas to harvest mangosteen.”
It said there was an encounter between the Abu Sayaff and the military that day and that while they were in Kabuntakas, “Scout Rangers mistook the seven as ASG members and captured them.”
“The families said that the victims were still alive in the hands of the military by noontime, but at around 5:00 in the afternoon, their lifeless bodies were delivered by the AFP to the local police station,” Suara Bangsamoro said.
Religious leaders want probe, too
The National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP), called on authorities to conduct a “thorough and impartial investigation on the alleged massacre of the 7 young civilians whom the military claimed as ASG and killed in a legitimate encounter.”
In a statement, the NUCP said the rule of law, human rights, and international humanitarian law must be upheld and respected even under martial law, if the military and police want the people’s trust and confidence in the military and police restored.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities under martial law on May 23, 2017, Day 1 of the Marawi Siege. It was supposed to be lifted after 60 days but was extended twice – until December 31, 2017 and until December 31, 2018.
“Let this unfortunate event showcase that trust and confidence by giving justice to uncover the truth — if indeed they were civilians or ASG, and massacred or legitimate encounter,” the organization of Muslim religious leaders said.
“We appeal to the people of Sulu in particular, and the whole country in general, for sobriety and unity to face the many challenges and threats besetting our nation on the spate of bombings and killings almost every day in some places in Mindanao,” the NUCP said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)