The fugitive Jovito Palparan may be under the protection of Armed Forces personnel and business owners, and President Benigno Aquino III should order the military to help arrest him, an international human rights group said Wednesday.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement there were apprehensions as well that the military could be interfering in the civilian judicial process, as indicated by the transfer to military custody of two of the coaccused of the retired major general tagged by activists as “Berdugo” (Butcher).
“President Aquino should get the message to the military that the years of protecting Palparan for grievous abuses are over,” HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said in the statement.
“Officers and soldiers alike should be on notice that if they block civilian authorities in arresting Palparan, they too will face legal consequences,” Pearson said.
Palparan is charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention for the disappearance of University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño in 2006.
Prosecuting him will show that the Aquino administration is taking the Philippines in a new direction, according to Pearson.
“Palparan has become a symbol of the widespread lack of accountability for atrocities in the Philippines today,” she said.
HRW observed that the P1-million reward put up for Palparan’s capture had not led to his arrest. It said its informants had conveyed suspicion that the fugitive had powerful backers.
“Civilian officials have told [us] that they believe some military personnel and business owners, who benefited from Palparan’s campaign against the communist New People’s Army, are protecting the retired general,” HRW said.
It also noted that a group of active and retired military officers had come out to defend Palparan and to assail what it called his “trial by publicity.”
The group had warned of soldiers’ demoralization, saying that the abuses attributed to Palparan occurred during counterinsurgency operations.
Bulacan Judge Teodora Gonzales issued the arrest warrants for Palparan et al. in December.
More than a month later, authorities have little information on Palparan’s whereabouts, Ricardo Diaz, director of the National Bureau of Investigation in Central Luzon, said Wednesday. Another of Palparan’s coaccused, Sgt. Rizal Hilario, also remains at large.
Diaz said that the warrants remained in effect and that the search had not been called off.
Asked to comment on HRW’s statement, military spokesperson Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr. said: “If they have names, provide us with the names. As a matter of policy we won’t tolerate any member of the military coddling personalities wanted by the government.”
Burgos said the head of the AFP Human Rights Office, Col. Domingo Tutaan, would meet with representatives of HRW on Friday.
Burgos pointed out the Army was quick to turn over Palparan’s coaccused, Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado and Staff Sgt. Edgardo Osorio, to the custody of the Philippine National Police when Judge Gonzales of the Regional Trial Court in Malolos, Bulacan province, issued the arrest warrants.
“Since they are in the active service, we facilitated their turnover to the authorities. But in the case of those no longer in the service, it will be hard,” he said.
But HRW pointed out that the Regional Trial Court had quickly granted the motion for the transfer of Anotado and Osorio from police to military custody.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had protested the move. She wrote Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and said the lawyer who had petitioned for the transfer on behalf of an unnamed Intelligence and Security Group commanding officer was not the counsel who represented the two accused officers in the preliminary investigation and hearings.
De Lima also said in her letter that the justice department had neither been furnished a copy of the court order nor informed of the plan to file a motion to transfer Anotado and Osorio.
She said the Army had also failed to inform the justice department of the two officers’ whereabouts.
Palparan was last seen on December 19 last year at Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in the Clark Freeport. He was preparing to board a plane bound for Singapore but was prevented by Bureau of Immigration personnel.
Diaz said that despite operations aided by the police and the military in at least 18 areas nationwide since December 20, the NBI had yet to find Palparan.
“[But] we’re not losing hope,” Diaz told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the City of San Fernando. “We’re waiting for him to be careless. In the first phase of his hiding, he is expected to be careful. But the days will wear him down … That’s when we will come like thieves in the night.”
Tips on Palparan’s whereabouts have stopped coming despite the P1-million reward for information that could lead to his arrest, Diaz said.
Leftist groups have joined the hunt for Palparan, whom they believe responsible for the extrajudicial killing, disappearance, torture and harassment of activists in areas where he was assigned.
Diaz said the NBI’s search for Palparan had brought its agents to 18 areas in the provinces of Isabela, Mindoro, North Cotabato, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Quezon and Laguna, and in the cities of Pasig, Balanga and Angeles.
“All of these [operations] were negative for General Palparan,” he said.
Diaz said he did not believe reports that some military officials could be protecting the fugitive.
He said Palparan could be just waiting for the case to be dismissed and exhausting legal remedies before surfacing. With a report from Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila