DOJ chief reassures justice for victims of Mamasapano incident

MANILA — Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Wednesday reiterated the agency’s commitment to serve justice to the families of the victims of the January 2015 Mamasapano clash that killed more than 60 persons, including 44 members of the elite Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) which marks its second year on Wednesday.

“There would be no closure for the families left behind by this tragic incident. Even if Congress conducted several hearings on this, so many questions remain unanswered,” Aguirre stated as the nation remembers the ‘SAF 44’ who died in the encounter.

Aguirre said he fully supports the announcement of President Rodrigo Duterte on the creation an independent commission to investigate the operation designed to get wanted Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan but later turned into a running gun battle between SAF commandos and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and private armed groups.

President Duterte said he would appoint men of integrity, including Supreme Court justices, to compose the panel, similar to the one headed by retired Justice Corazon Agrava that investigated the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino on Aug. 21, 1983 upon his return from self-exile in the United States.

He said the creation of an independent commission to investigate the botched Mamasapano operation two years ago that killed more than 60 people including 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force commandos may help shed light on many unanswered questions on the controversy.

“Mahirap talaga magkaroon ng closure dito dahil marami ang mga katanungang di nasagot sa mga hearings noon so siguro sa pamamagitan nito (commission) baka luminaw yang mga kasagutan,” Aguirre said Wednesday.

He said among the questions that were not fully answered during the hearings conducted by the Senate and the Lower House were the delay in the provision of artillery support to the engaged commandos as well as the delay in the deployment of reinforcement.

“Why were the artillery support for our SAF forces withheld? Why did Gen. (Edmundo) Pangilinan not give the order to use artillery when the conditions warranting their use have persisted early in the encounter? Was it because then Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPPAP) Secretary Teresita Deles intervened with President Aquino because the MILF will construe the use of artillery as an act of all out war that will derail the peace process?,” the DoJ Secretary Aguirre asked.

“Did President Aquino give an order to stand down and not to reinforce the pinned down SAF troopers? Why was it that our artillery’s phosphorous rounds were fired only after most if not all of our SAF troopers have died”,” he added.

He also asked and the most important of all, why were the mobile phones of all those involved in the planning and the directing of Oplan Exodus from President Aquino down to the officers not submitted for forensic examination?

”As far as I know, only General (Getulio) Napenas immediately submitted his mobile unit to the CIDG for forensic examination”, he further stated.

Aguirre also questioned why Aquino was not included in the case before the Ombudsman which on Tuesday indicted former PNP Director General Alan Purisima and former SAF Director Getulio Napenas.

Purisima is serving a suspension order issued by the Ombudsman at the time he and Napenas planned the operation dubbed “Oplan Exodus” to get Marwan.

Aguirre said they are still waiting for the decision of the SC on their motion for transfer of venue of the hearing of the case filed against 88 MILF, BIFF and private armed group members involved in the killing of the commandos.

He said prosecution witnesses might also face pressures, harassments and threats to prevent them from taking the witness stand during the trial proper of the case.

“As for the DOJ, we have decided that, for the protection of the witnesses and so that the presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court of Cotabato, where the case is pending, will not be threatened and pressured, we have moved for a transfer of venue to Manila. This move was made more imperative due to the failure of the RTC-Cotabato to resolve the motion to judicially determine the existence of probable cause. Consequently, this delayed the issuance of the warrant of arrest,” Aguirre noted.

The case is for the complex crime of direct assault with murder against 88 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and private armed groups (PAGs) in connection to the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident which led to the deaths of 44 members of the SAF along with international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, a.k.a. Marwan.

Charged for direct assault with murder are five Commanders Abdulrahman Abdulrakman Upan, Rakman (118TH MILF), Refy Guiaman, Anife and Haumves alias Haves, operation commander of the 105th MILF Base Command and 83 others.

Earlier, Aguirre said the current status of the case last December the Cotabato local court orders to submit additional evidence consisting of the birth certificates of some of the accused.

”Hindi mapro-prove yung identity ng akusado kasi almost to 100. So sinubmit na yan ng prosecution. Up to now, siguro mga one month ago, Dec. 18, hindi pa nagbababa ang court sa Cotabato kung merong probable cause for the issuance of the warrant of arrest,” Aguirre explained.

On Jan. 25, 2015, the slain police commandos were deployed to Mamasapano to capture wanted terrorists Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman.

Marwan, a Malaysian bomb maker with a bounty from the US government, was killed during the operations.

The operation resulted in the death of Marwan but also sparked a fierce encounter that claimed the lives of SAF members. Christopher Lloyd Caliwan/