“The testimonies of the prosecution witnesses on the identities of the skeletal remains are full of inconsistencies, highly unbelievable, and clearly perjured,” the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) decision read following the 14-year disputed “travelling skeleton” or the Hilongos mass murder case which involved peace consultants and activists.
In a 97-page decision dated December 16, Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina granted a demurrer to evidence filed separately by the accused, including peace consultants Adelberto Silva, Vicente Ladlad, and couple Benito and Wilma Tiamzon; former lawmaker Satur Ocampo; and farmer activists Norberto Murillo, Dario Tomada, and Oscar Belleza.
The three farmer activists were among those who were freed after being imprisoned for more than a decade in Manila City Jail.
The court also ruled on the dismissal of 15 counts of murder against the Tiamzon couple, Lino Salazar, Presillano Beringel, Luzviminda Orillo, Muco Lubong, and Felix Dumali.
The 2006 Hilongos mass grave case was referred by human rights defenders to as “a circus that is kept alive for political persecution” saying it to be an offshoot from another mass grave in Baybay, Leyte six years prior involving the same alleged victims and was filed by the same prosecution witness.
The curious case of travelling skeleton
Judge Bunyi-Medina noted the absence of forensic evidence, citing that there have been numerous lapses in the handling, marking, and chain of custody of the skeletal remains which further casts a “lingering doubt” regarding its origin and identities.
“And despite the fact that this obvious inconceivability came up during the presentation of its evidence, the prosecution did not bother to clear this up by adducing evidence to elucidate these apparent improbable scenarios,” the Manila court said.
The decision added how “incredible and untrustworthy” the statements of several prosecution witnesses who claimed to be ex-NPAs and took the witness stand prior to the Hilongos case.
It was in June 2000 when an alleged mass grave of seven skeletal remains was exhumed in Brgy. Monterico in Baybay, Leyte.
These remains were then used as evidence for the multiple murder charge against 25 New People’s Army (NPA) guerillas in the so-called “purge” that transpired in 1985.
Assistant Provincial Prosecutor Rosulo U. Vivero handled the case. However, it was dismissed in 2005 due to insufficient evidence.
Two years later, he then filed another multiple murder raps that supposedly transpired in Hilongos, Leyte and accused more than 70 activists including the Communist Party of the Philippines founder and now-exiled leader Jose Maria Sison who was in detention at the time the alleged massacre was committed.
Other peace consultants included in the arrest warrant were Leo Velasco and Prudencio Calubid who were both disappeared by suspected state elements and Randall Echanis who was slain in 2020 in Quezon City during curfew and lockdown, and Bernabe Ocasla, who died a political prisoner cuffed to his hospital bed after his third and fatal cardiac arrest last 2016.
The case was filed before the Hilongos RTC in 2007 and was re-raffled to Manila RTC a year after.
Various groups decried Vivero’s narrative of yet another Leyte mass grave amid inconsistencies, especially as regards the fact that five of the recovered skeletal remains during the Baybay case were again presented in the Hilongos case alongside 15 certain victims.
Esperon’s testimony, an empty can
Other than Vivero, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. who designated himself as the principal witness testified in the Hilongos case last November 2020.
KAPATID, a group of political prisoners’ kin, described Esperon’s words as an empty can from the very beginning “which made the loudest noise through the years [and] went straight to the place it deserves—the trash can.”
“This dismissal proved what we’ve been saying since this case was filed way back 2004-2005. This multiple murder case was already dismissed by the Baybay RTC (8th Judicial Region) yet was recycled by the government to implicate known activists and place them behind bars. The Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) specially targeted Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Satur Ocampo to crush Bayan Muna which placed No. 1 in the partylist elections in 2001 and 2004,” said KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim.
In addition, Anakpawis partylist Rafael Mariano pointed out that the dismissal should also be the basis in the abolition of the National Task Force to End Local Communist and Armed Conflict, whom Esperon was also the vice chairman, acting as the newly-formed IALAG responsible for the vilification efforts and red-tagging threats prior to the trumped-up cases against activists.
IALAG was formed under Arroyo administration through Executive Order 493 in 2006. Rights group KARAPATAN stressed that the group has become a government agency responsible for fabricating criminal lawsuits against political activists suspected of being members or supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines—identical to the works of NTF-ELCAC.
“Pinatunayan ng desisyong ito ang kasinungalingan ng mga pasista laban kay Ka Randy, Ka Dario at iba pang inakusahan dito. Ang legal development na ito ay dapat mag-marka at maging basehan kung bakit dapat buwagin ang NTF ELCAC na siyang pasimuno ng pagsasampa ng gawa-gawang kaso sa mga aktibista sa buong bansa,” said Mariano.
[This decision proved the lies of the fascists against Ka Randy, Ka Dario and others accused here. This legal development should make a mark and be the basis for why the NTF ELCAC, which is the initiator of the filing of fabricated lawsuits against activists across the country, should be abolished.]