Gunmen torch Zamboanga del Sur court; ballots in poll protest targeted
PAGADIAN CITY—Authorities are looking into the possibility that the burning of the building that housed Regional Trial Court Branch 29 in San Miguel, Zamboanga del Sur could be triggered by an ongoing election protests involving various elective seats in several towns.
The incident happened less than a month after military troops deployed to secure the court were pulled out.
Captain Roger Bartiana, San Miguel town police chief, said the portion of the court where ballot bins were placed was heavily hit by the hour-long fire that broke out 1 a.m. Thursday.
According to Bartiana, five still unidentified gunmen carried out the burning of the court building. Wearing bonnets, they arrived in the area around 12:45 a.m. aboard two motorcycles.
At gunpoint, the court’s two security guards were herded toward the nearby local government center’s Engineering Building, their hands tied with duct tape.
Ballots as target
The four other men broke the court building’s windows, poured gasoline on the ballot bins and set these on fire.
The gunmen then fled toward the direction of Margosatubig town, Bartiana said.
Due to the gasoline, the flames quickly engulfed the court building. The blaze was eventually subdued around 2:13 a.m., with firefighters from Lapuyan and Dinas towns putting it off.
“We are still conducting in-depth investigation on the incident and checking on all closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed along the road where the suspects could have possibly passed, for their possible identification,” Bartiana added.
The San Miguel court is handling several electoral protest cases, one of which involved the mayoralty of Dimataling town.
Presiding Judge Ruben Bance said the election-related cases could be one of the motives behind the arson incident.
He recalled that 11 election protest cases were filed with his court, six of these were already resolved.
Bance said that on the Dimataling case, the court’s revision committee was already doing revision of ballots, and photocopying ballots and voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) last Wednesday, and the counting could have resumed last Thursday if not for the fire incident.
Bance added that they will check what records and evidences of the five poll protests remained, hinting that if these were all gone, the cases may be dismissed “as we only rely on the evidences.”
For the other cases, Bance said they will have the records reconstituted with the help of the prosecutors, the Public Attorney’s Office and the involved lawyers.
Former Dimataling mayor Maria Dolores Baya, party to the Dimataling electoral protest case, said they never expected that “there are individuals who do not give due respect to the judicial process” and resorted to the burning of evidences.
Baya has contested the victory of current Dimataling mayor Avelino Yrauda who won over her by 231 votes. Baya has argued that Yrauda’s margin was questionable because of the over votes in six villages totaling 1,365.
Baya also questioned the pull out of elements of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) assigned to secure the court while the protests are ongoing.
Lt. Col. Marlowe Patria, commander of the Army’s 53rd Infantry Battalion, said the CAFGU troops were pulled out upon the behest of Bance, citing the commitment of the San Miguel local government to provide security to the court.
Patria disclosed that Bance wrote the Army on October 29, 2019, “stating that our troops are no longer needed since security can already be provided by the local government.”
Edited by JPV
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