The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has recommended criminal charges against eight soldiers and their commanders for the killing of a respected botanist and his two aides two years ago.
The CHR has also called for administrative charges against the soldiers and officers for the killing of Leonardo Co and his two companions in the forest of Kananga town in Leyte on Nov. 15, 2010.
The military claimed Co, a botanist of the Universitry of the Philippines and consultant to the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp. (EDC), company forest guard Sofronio G. Cortez, and Co’s guide Julius Borromeo were caught in the crossfire in a fire fight between troops of the Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion and members of the communist New People’s Army.
Co’s other guide, Policarpio Balute, and Ronio Gibe, a contractual forester with EDC’s corporate responsibility department, survived the shooting.
But an investigation by the CHR found that there was no fire fight and that the death of Co and his companions was due to the military’s failure to distinguish civilians from combatants.
Attempts at cover-up
The CHR also cited alleged attempts to hide the crime by the soldiers and their battalion commander.
“This was a tragedy that should not have happened if the [military] had been more diligent in observing international humanitarian law in protecting the lives and safety of civilians,” the CHR said in a statement.
“There was a failure to distinguish civilians from alleged combatants. There was failure to provide prompt medical attention to the wounded victim who died as a result,” the statement said.
Borromeo was wounded in the incident, but instead of getting medical assistance he was interrogated by the soldiers, the CHR said.
Co and his two assistants were killed while working on a reforestation project in Leyte for EDC.
The CHR said Col. Federico Tutaan, then the 19th IB commander, and 1Lt. Obald Odchimar, then Charlie Company commander, should be charged for failing to submit all the firearms used in the shooting for testing.
The CHR findings released on Tuesday, CHR Chairperson Loretta Ann Rosales cited gross violations of the human rights law
“Our position is while we can grant there was a legitimate operation, the truth is there was no legitimate encounter because it was one-sided, there was no exchange of fire,” Rosales told the Inquirer in an interview.
Rosales said the law prohibited the killing or shooting of people not identified as combatants.
DOJ clears military
She cited the findings of Dr. Racquel Fortun, a forensic expert, that Borromeo would have lived had he been immediately taken to hospital by the military for treatment instead of being interrogated although wounded.
The CHR’s recommendations have been sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which will determine what charges will be filed against the soldiers and officers.
The CHR’s recommendations came as President Aquino attempts to show that his administration is serious about cracking down on rights abuses that have afflicted the country for decades.
Mr. Aquino was elected two years ago on a platform against rights abuses, particularly the “culture of impunity” under which powerful men believe they can get away with abuses.
Shots from soldiers
The DOJ and National Bureau of Investigation also investigated the killing of Co. But their fact-finding team absolved the military and blamed the NPA for the deaths of Co and his companions.
But Fortun, who autopsied the bodies of Co, Cortez and Borromeo, disagreed with the panel’s findings that NPA guerrillas shot the victims.
The DOJ-NBI panel based its findings on the supposed flat trajectory of the bullets that killed Co and his companions.
But the CHR found that all the shots had been fired from the soldiers’ position on a rise in the forest.
The CHR also found that the bullets recovered from the bodies of Co, Cortez and Borromeo did not match any of the guns submitted by the military for examination. With a report from AFP