MANILA, Philippines?The chief negotiator is now the principal suspect.
Mayor Alvarez Isnaji of Indanan, Sulu, and his son Haider Isnaji have been placed under arrest and charged with kidnapping in connection with the abduction of ABS-CBN news anchor Ces Drilon, her two cameramen and a university professor in Kulasi village, Maimbung town late in the morning of June 8.
Charges of four counts of kidnapping for ransom were filed in the Department of Justice by the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) against the Isnajis, who had negotiated for the release of the captives.
The government has a standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists and kidnappers.
During inquest proceedings that started at 11:30 p.m. Thursday at the CIDG headquarters in Camp Crame, Drilon and her crewmen, Jimmy Encarnacion and Angelo Valderama, faced Mayor Isnaji and his son for the first time since their release Tuesday night.
Throughout the roughly one-hour-long proceedings, Drilon, who was seated beside Encarnacion and Valderama, did not look at the Isnajis, who were seated across them.
During the inquest, the hostage victims and police witnesses, who arrested the Isnajis, submitted their sworn statements to the DoJ panel.
Senior State Prosecutor Emilie Fe Delos Santos set the first pre-trial hearing on the case on Monday at 1:30 p.m. The pre-trial investigation will determine whether or not formal charges will be filed before the courts.
Senior Superintendent Joel Coronel, who represented the CIDG during the proceedings, said additional evidence would be submitted during the pre-trial.
The three former hostages excused themselves midway into the hearing after their lawyer said they needed to return to the Medical City hospital in Pasig City, where they are confined while recovering from "trauma."
In a brief talk with reporters after the inquest, the mayor and his son denied involvement in the kidnapping.
Mayor Isnaji said he was not angry with Drilon, adding, "Alam ko naman na wala akong kasalanan [I know that I am not guilty]."
"This will make for a very interesting movie. This is a very interesting script. We are not guilty," the young Isnaji said.
In a number of interviews with Inquirer Mindanao prior to the June 17 release of the captives, Mayor Isnaji said he could not back out of the negotiations because he was heeding an order from Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno.
?I have no direct link with President (Gloria) Macapagal-Arroyo. The directive came from Secretary Puno,? Mayor Isnaji had said, adding that he was told to participate in the negotiations, along with Chief Supt. Joel Goltiao, the police director in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
?Baka ako ang masabit?
Even during the early stages of the negotiations, Mayor Isnaji told Inquirer Mindanao of his apprehension that he might be implicated in the kidnapping: ?Baka ako ang masabit dito, baka ako pa ang pagdudahan.?
Nevertheless, he said, he accepted the role of chief negotiator and reported developments to Puno ?almost every two hours.?
?I have no direct link to high officials. My only line is through Secretary Puno,? he reiterated three days before the captives were released.
Asked Thursday to comment, Puno said: ?That?s hilarious. I never met, much less talked to, him (Isnaji) before the incident.?
Wednesday night arrest
The Isnajis' lawyer, Ernesto Francisco, questioned the charges, saying his clients were mentioned only once in the affidavits of the news crew, specifically that of Drilon.
"There is nothing here [in the affidavit] that would point to the respondents as the ones responsible for the kidnapping," Francisco said.
Francisco also decried the illegal detention and the arrest of his clients without a warrant.
"Based on the affidavits, there is nothing here that would justify a warrantless arrest," he said.
Francisco added that his clients were detained beyond the 36-hour period provided by law, wherein a suspect can be detained without the filing of formal charges. He said his clients were arrested at 4 a.m. on June 18, and the 36-hour period lapsed at 4 p.m. Thursday.
But Coronel argued that the Isnajis were initially invited for "debriefing" but were later arrested, at 9 p.m. on June 18, after "inconsistencies" in the mayor's testimony showed that he was "acting
in collusion with the kidnappers."
Because of the "gravity of the offense," Delos Santos said questions on the arrest would be threshed out during the pre-trial.
Delos Santos ordered Coronel to transfer the detention of the Isnajis from the CIDG to the custodial center in Camp Crame, saying they needed to be taken out of the custody of their accusers.
The Isnajis were flown to Manila early on Wednesday and subjected to ?tactical interrogation? by CIDG investigators and lawyers.
Chief Supt. Raul Castañeda, the CIDG head, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the phone that the Isnajis were put under arrest on Wednesday night.
?On the appreciation of investigators and the recommendation of our lawyers, we opted to file kidnapping charges against father and son,? Castañeda said.
Philippine National Police Director General Avelino Razon noted that the town mayor was appointed by the kidnappers as their negotiator with the government, even as local officials tapped Sulu Vice Governor Lady Anne Sahidulla to negotiate for the families of the captives.
"Mayor Isnaji was not among the government negotiators. He was negotiating for the kidnap for ransom group," Razon said.
The mayor's son, Haider, was a "conduit," Razon said, adding that the young Isnaji "was also talking [with the kidnappers] and doing the things that his father was doing."
But Razon told reporters Thursday in Camp Crame that the mastermind of the kidnapping had yet to be identified, as well as the leader of the armed group that held Drilon et al. for nine days.
Razon also said Mindanao State University Prof. and peace advocate Octavio Dinampo?who was released from custody of Zamboanga police after undergoing debriefing?was not being considered a suspect in the case.
A total of 17 people?the Isnajis, a certain Attorney Lorena and 14 suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group?were charged with kidnapping for ransom.
Razon said the identities of the 14 were culled from the statements of the kidnap victims.
?We know them by their names, pictures and aliases and through sketches,? Razon said.
Among the 14 charged were Sulayman Pattah, alias Amah Ma?as and Abu Harris, and a certain Walid, alias Tuan Wals, who had earlier been identified by the PNP.
Razon said ?inconsistencies? between the Isnajis? statements to the CIDG and the statements of witnesses had helped link the mayor and his son to the kidnapping.
?Based on the revelations of the witnesses, we have seen that the mayor is a principal suspect in the case,? Razon said, adding that the witnesses knew ?certain facts related to the kidnapping? and were ?present in the incident?and some are government officials, police.?
The CIDG?s Castañeda said some certain statements made by the Isnajis ?did not jibe? with certain events. ?Suffice it to say we found probable cause for the charges,? he said.
Razon said that after Drilon et al. were released, ?the investigation started to be filled up with the debriefing of the victims.?
?This was where we were able to unravel facts [that showed] the Isnajis were involved in the kidnapping,? he said.
Razon said separate debriefing sessions were conducted with Drilon et al.
?Our investigation team pieced [the statements] together to get the bigger picture ? We are not saying [Mayor Isnaji] planned this [abduction]. We are saying that he is the principal of the kidnapping ? We had a feeling he was for the kidnappers,? Razon said.
Razon also said Juamil Biyaw, who had served as a guide of Drilon et al. and who purportedly led them to their kidnappers before disappearing, was likewise being investigated.
?He will be questioned on why he disappeared,? Razon said.
Biyaw is in the custody of CIDG Region 9, Razon said, adding:
?He is under arrest, and we will conduct an investigation on him. He is being suspected of having betrayed Ces.?
Razon said Drilon and her cameramen had provided police investigators ?pieces of evidence that we are now using.?
He praised Drilon for sending information to authorities through her cell phone.
?Ces was very brave and intelligent. Even under captivity, she was transmitting back to us information that we could use, like their location,? Razon said.
?From time to time, she would speak English, knowing her captors didn?t know English. When she was not being watched, she would text and describe their orientation. She had presence of mind and awareness of their situation.?
Drilon?s boss, ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs head Maria Ressa, said the whole experience had proved to be ?a very tricky situation.?
But she said the network trusted that the police knew which way to go in the investigation, and that it was backing efforts to find out who had masterminded the kidnapping.
?I think the authorities have a clear idea where to go. They know better. At this point, ABS-CBN will do everything it can to help the authorities in terms of finding who exactly kidnapped [Drilon et al.],? Ressa told the Inquirer.
But according to Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, the filing of kidnapping charges against Mayor Isnaji could ?complicate? things given his high status in Sulu.
?If he will feel aggrieved, for example, we don?t know what his followers will do,? Gonzalez told reporters.
He said the mayor was considered a very important personality in Sulu and was well-respected.
?In fact, his stature in Sulu is as high as, if not higher than, [former ARMM Gov. Nur] Misuari,? Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez said he was not expecting hostilities because it was possible that Isnaji would be cleared of the charge.
He said he would meet with Puno and Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita on Friday to discuss the kidnapping issue.
Gonzalez also said he considered as ?circumstantial evidence? the fact that the kidnappers had designated the mayor as their negotiator.
He said it only showed that the Isnajis were known to the kidnappers, and later added that the mayor could have been chosen because of his respected status.
Gonzalez also said he was unaware of whether the kidnapping of Drilon et al. was related to the Aug. 11 elections in the ARMM, where the mayor is expected to seek the governorship.
But he said that if this were true, it could lessen the impact on the kidnappers because it would appear that they were just used to raise campaign funds.
Free to run
Even if he is charged with kidnapping, Isnaji Alvarez is free to run for ARMM governor, according to Commissioner Rene Sarmiento of the Commission on Elections.
Only a crime conviction will disqualify him from running, Sarmiento said.
Alvarez, an independent candidate, is one of the seven men contesting the top ARMM post.
The other six are the incumbent, ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan (Lakas-CMD), Jupakar Pindah-Asia Arabani (independent), Ismain Berto Ibrahim (independent), Guimid Panalangin Matalam (Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino), Ahmad Darping Nooh (independent) and Ali Jumadil Omar (independent).
Sarmiento said the Comelec had no plans as yet of suspending the elections in Sulu in view of the military and police offensive against the kidnappers.
Should the offensive last until August and reach the polling centers, the Comelec can easily transfer the precincts to safer areas, he said. With reports from Julie S. Alipala in Zamboanga City; Leila B. Salaverria, Beverly Natividad and Kristine L. Alave in Manila