Espina cries for justice
Video by NOY MORCOSO III and RYAN LEAGOGO/INQUIRER.net
Video by Noy Morcoso/INQUIRER.net
The acting chief of the Philippine National Police seethed with anger as he confronted government and Moro peace negotiators on Wednesday and told them that Moro rebels shot to death 44 of his counterterrorism commandos as they lay wounded in a fierce gun battle in Maguindanao province last month.
PNP Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina held back tears as he cried for justice for the slain Special Action Force (SAF) commandos at the opening of an inquiry by the House of Representatives into the gun battle with Moro guerrillas that ended the police operation to take down Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” and his Filipino deputy, Abdul Basit Usman, in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao, on Jan. 25.
The SAF commandos killed Marwan during the operation, but lost 44 of their own in gun battles with guerrillas from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace agreement with the government, and other armed groups as they withdrew from the area.
Espina heaped scorn on those who killed the commandos, shortly after the MILF lone representative Rasid Ladiasan and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles spoke matter of factly about the intricacies of the ceasefire agreement, which the MILF used to justify its fighters’ actions.
“They were very much alive and you did not allow them to go back home,” Espina said, referring to the wounded commandos who were executed as they lay helpless on the ground.
After two straight days of speaking about the clash in the Senate, Espina let go of his emotions at the House hearing.
When he regained his composure, his eyes were red, his face was contorted with rage, and he used his fists to hammer down his point.
“Nobody else wants peace more than us. We know the price to pay for war, that is why we seek very clear answers,” he said.
“What is this overkill you did to my men? I lost sleep last night when I learned about the medicolegal report. Insp. (Rennie) Tyrus, Insp. (Ryan) Pabalinas did not suffer any lethal shots, they were hit in the legs. How did they die? The other one was shot to the head, he was very much alive,” Espina said, addressing Ladiasan.
“Another was stripped of his bulletproof vest, you shot him to the body. One was shot with a 9mm to the head. There were two fatal shots, you can’t call that suicide because that’s close range,” he said.
“I just want to ask this question. They were SAF. Whatever violations were done, even if they say there was no coordination or who fired the first shot, they were part of the peace talks,” he said.
“Why did you finish off my men? They were 44 and I just cited two. I am not yet through asking our medicolegal team. These were simple men. They captured a criminal and yet we ask if this was legal? And you will blame [lack of] coordination? Nobody else will speak for my men but I. The 44 are depending on us all to give them justice. I seek answers for my men,” Espina said.
‘I wish I were with them’
“I wish I were with them so I could lie down and salute: Mission accomplished. I hope you can answer me so that when we face each other in heaven, I can answer them,” said Espina, who was informed about the SAF mission only after the commandos had already killed Marwan, a Malaysian-born senior figure in the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
Chief Supt. Getulio Napeñas, the relieved SAF commander, stood up from his seat and embraced Espina. Napeñas wiped away tears as he returned to his seat.
The audience fell silent during Espina’s speech. Deles and Ladiasan kept their heads bowed as Espina spoke. The committee members broke into applause.
No laughing matter
Negros Occidental Rep. Jeffrey Ferrer, head of the House public order committee, tried to make light of the moment when he joked that the SAF was to blame for failing to coordinate the operation with the military and the MILF.
But committee members reprimanded him, saying the deaths of 44 SAF commandos were not a laughing matter.
Zamboanga Rep. Celso Lobregat moved to play back a short YouTube clip on the killing of an SAF officer by men believed to be MILF guerrillas, but this was voted down by the majority who felt it was improper and that the content of the video was not yet authenticated.
The 55th SAF Company commander, Rey Arillo, was allowed to confirm the identity of the dead SAF commando on the video.
“I saw the video. I can also identify the person on the video. He is an officer assigned to the 55th,” Arillo said. (See story on page A1.)
What to do next
Erika Pabalinas, widow of the 55th SAF Company commander who was also killed in the gun battle, said her husband’s body was “disfigured” so that the family was advised not to open the coffin at the wake.
“We did not see his full body. We were only allowed to look at his face, which had stitches all over, and his skull was obviously reconstructed,” she said.
After the emergence of the video, Pabalinas said she did not know what to do.
Espina said he had not seen the video because he was focused on the medicolegal report.
Director Benjamin Magalong, head of the PNP board of inquiry, said he saw the video on Tuesday night, but refused to comment on it because of his role in the investigation.
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