Unresolved issues into 2015
The year 2014, like a half-finished book, is leaving several issues in central and northern Luzon unresolved. Cases involving the murder of a Filipino transgender woman in Olongapo City, the disappearance of two University of the Philippines students in Bulacan province that implicated a retired Army general and a housing scam that bilked the government of P7 billion have yet to be decided by the courts.
Land ownership issues remain a continuing saga in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province while the battle to save trees from government road projects in Pangasinan province is expected to spill over to 2015. In Cagayan Valley region, coastal and upland residents continue to stand up against mining operations.
Almost nine years after an American soldier was tried in a Philippine court after he was implicated in a rape case involving a Filipina, the fate of another US serviceman hangs in the balance as he faces trial for the murder of transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude in Olongapo City.
Prosecutors charged US
Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, 19, with murder on Dec. 15, after two months of preliminary investigation of the murder complaint filed by Laude’s sister, Marilou.
Laude was found dead inside an Olongapo motel on Oct. 11. Witnesses, including Laude’s friend identified only as “Barbie” and a motel employee, had identified Pemberton as the suspect after seeing the soldier and Laude checked into the motel.
Chief City Prosecutor Emilie Fe de los Santos, who also headed the panel that handled the rape charges in 2005 against US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, said they found probable cause to charge Pemberton with murder, a nonbailable offense.
The case was raffled off to Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74 on Dec. 15. The court issued a warrant for Pemberton’s arrest the following day.
On Dec. 19, Pemberton, escorted by American and Filipino security forces, surrendered to the Olongapo court hearing the case. Authorities took his fingerprints and his mugshots, and his arrest was formally documented.
But Pemberton was not arraigned that day as his lawyers asked for the suspension of proceedings to ask the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review the case.
His lawyers also asked the DOJ to set aside the prosecution panel’s Dec. 15 resolution and dismiss the murder case, saying it was “based on nothing more than speculations, conjectures and inadmissible evidence.”
Jabalde granted Pemberton’s petition to suspend the proceedings, which Laude’s family protested. She also denied the petitions filed by Laude’s family seeking Pemberton’s transfer to the Olongapo jail as well as the court’s permission for media coverage.
Lawyer Harry Roque, lead counsel of Laude’s family, said the family is preparing to elevate Pemberton’s custody issue to the Supreme Court, following Jabalde’s ruling. The court has a year to finish the case as prescribed by the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Missing UP students
The past year offered a breakthrough in the kidnapping and serious illegal detention of missing UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño when retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr., the main accused, was arrested in Manila in August after more than two years on the run.
But the trial of Palparan and two soldiers will only resume in February after the Dec. 8 hearing for Palparan’s bail petition was canceled by Regional Trial Court Judge Teodora Gonzales.
Palparan, Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado and S/Sgt. Edgardo Osorio have been undergoing trial for the disappearance of Empeño and Cadapan, who were abducted allegedly by government soldiers in Bulacan eight years ago.
Erlinda Cadapan, Sherlyn’s mother, said: “The next hearing will provide me some insight as to whether justice favors us or a double standard prevails.”
Gonzales set 14 trial dates, starting Feb. 2, for Palparan’s bail petition. But the mothers of the missing students had opposed Palparan’s petition for temporary freedom.
The court also allowed the witnesses of Anotado and Osorio to give their testimonies in court after failing to appear in earlier hearings.
The two soldiers surrendered in 2011 and have been undergoing trial in the last three years. Palparan stood trial only in August last year after his arrest. The fourth accused, M/Sgt. Rizal Hilario, has yet to be arrested.
In Pangasinan, the fate of 770 trees along the Manila North Road (MNR) in five towns and Urdaneta City is still uncertain, seven months after environmentalists asked a court to stop the tree cutting.
But Virginia Pasalo, director of the Women in Development Foundation and commissioner of the Pangasinan Historical and Cultural Commission, hoped the court in Urdaneta would listen to her group’s plea to save the trees.
The 770 trees were among the 1,829 trees that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) had wanted felled for them to widen the 42-km MNR stretch cutting through the towns of Rosales, Villasis, Binalonan, Pozorrubio and Sison and Urdaneta City.
The trees were spared in February when the DPWH’s 90-day tree-cutting permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) expired. DPWH has applied for another permit.
However, before the DENR could issue the permit, environment groups denounced what they called as the massacre of trees and opposed the DPWH permit application.
On June 5 last year, Pasalo and Julia Senga, a trustee of the International Visitors’ Leadership Program Philippines, asked the court to issue an environment protection order to save the trees. The court is still hearing the case.
In August, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje ordered the freezing of issuance of all tree-cutting applications. Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, for his part, ordered the local DPWH offices to proceed with the road widening project without cutting trees along the MNR.
Pasalo said the issue is not just about trees. “It is increasingly becoming the issue of human lives as the road-widening project was poorly conceptualized and haphazardly implemented. The roads were constructed without ensuring the safety of pedestrians,” she said.
“The right of the state to widen the road for public use, does not give it the right to endanger the lives of its own citizens,” she added.
Land reform in limbo
The second round of the implementation of agrarian reform in Hacienda Luisita has not been completed since more than 6,000 farm workers received in late 2013 at least 6,600 square meters each from out of the 4,500 hectares covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and which the government paid for almost P500 million.
As slow as the CARP coverage went (started in 1989 and settled by the Supreme Court in 2012), the gains were quickly diminished. Sugar cane growers were quick to lease lands while a Filipino-Chinese businessman had bought more than 400 hectares as of November.
Those who got lands have not been receiving enough production support such that they await their share from the P1.3 billion from out of the sale of 581 hectares to the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) and Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA).
There has also been difficulty passing a law extending the authority of the government to process new agrarian lands.
In Cagayan province, 2014 ended with residents in the northern towns searching for answers on how they could stop the extraction of magnetite sand by foreign mining companies on their coastlines along the Babuyan Channel and the riverbed of the Cagayan River.
Art Alariao, president of the Federation of Environmental Advocates of Cagayan, bewailed how the government has failed to stop the mining firms, which are mostly Chinese-owned, despite the string of stoppage orders.
“We are already losing hope that these foreign miners will ever be stopped. Either our government is helpless or is just feigning helplessness,” he said.
Mario Ancheta, Mines and Geosciences Bureau regional director, in an earlier interview, said while on-shore mining operations in Aparri, Buguey and Gonzaga towns had stopped, exploration activities continue off-shore.
He said the mining firms secured a Mineral Sharing Production Agreement (MPSA), a government-issued license which allows, with specific conditions, foreign mining companies to extract the country’s mineral resources.
Going into the new year, the social acceptability of two foreign-owned, large-scale mining projects remains a protracted issue in Nueva Vizcaya province.
The Didipio gold-copper project in upland Kasibu town, operated by Australian firm OceanaGold Philippines Inc., is hounded by the continued opposition of environment groups, as well as claims of supposed unsettled payment to landowners and taxes due the provincial government.
Company officials, however, said they are willing to settle their obligations, but their hands are tied by legal issues.
The syndicated estafa case against housing developer Delfin Lee is still at its pretrial stage in a regional trial court in the City of San Fernando in Pampanga province. The case has proceeded though after Lee, ordered arrested in May 2012, was finally cornered in Manila in March last year and jailed at the Pampanga provincial jail.
The Home Development Mutual Fund (Pag-Ibig Fund) as well as home buyers filed cases against Lee for allegedly using ghost or unqualified buyers to corner P7 billion from the national shelter and savings agency or for double sales. Reports from Allan Macatuno, Tonette Orejas, Carmela Reyes-Estrope, Gabriel Cardinoza and Melvin Gascon
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