Advent Recollection in church turns into agony at Davao City checkpoint

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 30 November) — Fourteen passengers of a van bound for this city for an Advent Recollection at the Redemptorist Church Friday morning were held for at least three hours and 20 minutes at the checkpoint of the Task Force Davao (TFD) in Lasang, as police suspected they would attend a rally in downtown Davao.

MindaNews was heading to Davao del Norte when it saw on the other side of the highway, at the Davao City-bound checkpoint in Lasang, a truckload of persons on one side surrounded by police and a group with men wearing white soutana at the other corner, so it made a U-turn to find out what happened. It was 10:30 a.m.

The truck was turning back when MindaNews parked a few meters ahead. Asked what happened, Bunawan police chief, Chief Inspector Estrello  Ramiso told MindaNews they were chccking the truck passengers if they were bound for a rally in Davao City.

“Bawal?” (not allowed?), MindaNews asked.

“Among gi-verify lang, among gi-ingnan nga pwede ba di sa mo musulod para dili magsamok sa downtown. Nisugot man pud sila (We just verified, we told them   not to enter so there won’t be trouble downtown. They agreed),” he said. He estimated the truck passengers at “80 to 100.”

Friday, November 30 is Bonifacio Day and traditionally, rallies by militant groups are expected on this day. Militant groups did mount a rally in Davao City’s Freedom Park Friday afternoon (see other story)and called for, among others, the release of the Talaingod 18.

Two nights earlier, 18 members of a 74-member National Solidarity and Fact-Finding Mission were arrested in Talaingod, Davao del Norte for alleged trafficking, kidnapping and child abuse, among them ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro, Bayan Muna President Satur Ocampo, four pastors. The Mission members said they rescued 14 minors from alleged harassment of a paramilitary group that allegedly wanted their school closed.

Since 8:12 a.m.

At the other corner of the checkpoint area, Mindanews learned that the group of 14 passengers in a private van from Tagum had been held since 8:12 a.m. “Were those your companions in the truck?” MindaNews asked.  They said no. The truck that had just made a U-turn was stopped by the police just a few minutes earlier, they said.

Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, TFD Deputy Commander, told MindaNews that the TFD checkpoint in Lasang, near the bridge that serves as boundary with Panabo City in Davao del Norte, is manned by soldiers but “nakiki-checkponit minsan ang mga pulis.”

A Task Force Davao personnel mans a checkpoint in Brgy. Lasang, Davao City where a group of 14 persons who had traveled from Tagum City in Davao del Norte to attend an Advent Recollection at the Redemptorist Church in Davao City was held for three hours and 20 minutes on Friday morning, 30 November 2018 as the police suspected they would attend a rally in downtown Davao. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Normally, passengers of private vehicles are not asked to disembark  but the 14 were told to get off, have their bags inspected and sign their names on the logbook, the group members said.

Pia Manalao, the group’s spokesperson, told MindaNews they had been held since 8:12 a.m.  or more than two hours and that the police had kept saying they were still verifying if there was, indeed, an activity at the Redemptorist Church or they were in fact attending the rally.

“Meron daw pong malaking mobilization daw which will happen in Davao City and they are accusing us to be part of that organization,” she said.

“Are you part of the fact-finding mission?” MindaNews asked. They said no.

Manalao, who is from Manila, said she was among those invited to the Advent Recollection. The first Sunday of Advent is on December 2.

She said she joined the trip to Tagum City to fetch their fellow invitees from the Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, Inc. (MARBAI) for the activity that would start at  9 a.m. at the Redemptorist Church along JP Laurel Avenue in Davao City.

A seminarian told MindaNews that they rushed to Lasang and arrived there at 10 a.m. with Redemptorist Brother Ronald Balase, organzier of the Advent Recollection, to personally attest to the police that the group was part of the church activity.

Despite this, Ramiso still would not allow them to proceed to the city. Ramiso told  MindaNews they were still verifying. That was what he had repeatedly told the group earlier but the verification had taken more than two hours.

Checkpoint instead of church

Balase appealed to Ramiso to let the group proceed to the church. He said his task was supposed to wrap up the morning activity but he was now at the checkpoint instead of the church.

Ramiso asked:  “Dili diay matuloy kung dili magdating taga Tagum?”  (Your activity can’t proceed if those from Tagum will not be there?), to which Balase replied that they were their invitees and would not leave them at the checkpoint.

Balase reiterated what he had earlier told Ramiso, that the police could escort them to the church. “Kung gisamahan ninyo kami, nakaabot na tayo doon” (If you had accompanied us, we would have been there already), he said.

Ramiso again replied they were still verifying. “Napaka efficient nyo naman, Sir” (You are so efficient, Sir), Balase replied, noting how the group had been held for around three hours already.

Bunawan police chief, Chief Inspector Estrello Ramiso, talks to Redemptorist Brother Ronald Balase, organizer of the Advent Recollection at the Redemptorist Church which a group of 14 persons from Tagum was supposed to attend. Balase rushed to the Task Force Davao checkpoint in Brgy. Lasang, Davao City on Friday morning, 30 November 2018, to appeal to Ramiso to allow their invitees from Tagum City to proceed to Davao City to attend the recollection. The group was held for three hours and 20 minutes. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

“Nakikusap ako sa iyo, Sir, at least makaabot man lang kami sa second part” (I am appealing to you, Sir, at least we can attend the second part), the group can eat, rest and go home early, Balase said.

A member of  the group said one of the reasons given why they had not been cleared to proceed was that there was allegedly a problem with their vehicle, that it was allegedly overloaded, that it was allegedly “colorum.”  The van, MindaNews was told, was not commercial but private, borrowed from the Nonoy Librado Foundation. The group proposed to the police that, if, indeed, there was a problem with the vehicle’s papers, they would bring another vehicle to transport the group but “ayaw nila” (they said no).

Asked what was taking so long to verify, Ramiso, who was frequently seen talking to someone on his mobile phone, told MindaNews  they were verifying “ang event kung tinuod ba” (the event if, indeed, it is true).

Verification apparently took so long because of the mention of MARBAI and Nonoy Librado Foundation — groups the military and police have linked with the militant left.

Martial law

Addressing Balase, Ramiso said “mas lalong hindi maganda sir magpunta kayo doon tapos mag rally yang mga yan” (it will not be good if you proceed to Davao and they will join the rally).

Balase said “hindi kami magra-rally. Assuming kayo” (we are not going to the rally. You are assuming). Ramiso asked: “anong assurance nyo na hindi mag-rally yan?” (what is your assurance they will not join the rally?).

Listening to the exchange, MindaNews asked Ramiso: “anong problema pala kung mag-rally? Bawal pala under martial law?”

Ramiso did not respond.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities under martial law on May 23, 2017, on Day 1 of the Marawi Siege, supposedly only for 60 days but this was extended twice — in July until December 31, 2017 and in December 2017, until December 31, 2018. Another extension is being mulled until June 30, 2019 or December 21, 2019.

Astate of martial law, however, does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, including the bill of rights.

The group had repeatedly said they were bound for an activity at the Redemptorist Church and Ramiso could have that verified.

“Kaya nga pina-verify ko” (that’s why I had it verified), he said.

By then, the group had been held for three hours.

Jayvie Cabajes, Kabataan party list Vice Chair for Mindanao and one of those held, mumbled, “bawal na magdasal? Baka next time bawal na magmisa ha?” (Is it forbidden to pray? Will celebrating mass be forbidden, too?)

Ramiso finally allowed them to leave at around 11:30 a.m..  three hours and 20 minutes since they were held.

When MindaNews approached him why he finally let them go,  Ramiro said he had verified that there was in fact, an activity in the Redemptorist Church.

By the time the group would reach the Redemptorist Church, however, the activity would have been over. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)