Thursday, April 23, 2009

Military Intelligence Primary Suspects, Not Cooperating –Task Force Rebelyn

DAVAO CITY, Philippines (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project / Apr. 23, 2009) - Despite the military’s insistence that it shares the widespread outrage over the brutal killing of Rebelyn Pitao between March 4 and 5 and its promises to cooperate fully with police and show it has nothing to hide, the commanders and agents of two army intelligence units appear to be doing no such thing.

Elements in the military seem to be obstructing justice by insisting that repeated written requests from police for information and cooperation “do not have any legal basis,” - and six weeks on, those in charge of the investigation told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project they have yet to be granted access to any of the 13 army officers they consider primary suspects.

The police have not even been sent photographs of seven of those they want in for questioning.

Task Force Rebelyn, the official police body investigating the case is headquartered at the regional Philippine National Police headquarters at Camp Catitipan at Barangay (village) Buhangin in Davao City. The Task Force comprises eight collaborating law enforcement groups including the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). It does not include any military unit as some people have both suggested and feared.

We visited Davao and the surrounding countryside last week in an effort to find out what progress was being made in the investigation. Rebelyn was a 20-year-old elementary school teacher at the St. Peter’s College of Technology when she was killed. Her partially-naked body was found floating in an irrigation ditch in Barangay (village) San Isidro in Carmen District in Davao del Norte on Thursday March 5.

She had been tied up and gagged, punched in the face, raped with a blunt object and finally stabbed five times in the chest with an ice pick after being snatched off a tricycle the night before by four armed men at gunpoint while riding home from work.

“There were rope markings around her neck and mud all over her body,” her mother Evangeline told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project when we first met her last month. “She was like a carabao.”

As well as meeting with senior police officers from the task force and the regional director of the Commission on Human Rights, we interviewed the Pitao family and were able to track down and speak to a former senior instructor of 22-year-old Rio Pitao, who claimed Rebelyn’s elder sister was the subject of extensive military surveillance during her final year at a nursing college in the city.

With the help of several officials from the regional Land Transport Office (LTO) in Davao, we were also able to independently identify, track down and speak to the former owner of a white van with a license plate remarkably similar to the one given to police by a witness who also spoke of a white van and has since disappeared.

While local police reportedly examined and cleared that van which was sold on a week after Rebelyn’s killing, the officers in charge admit the coincidence is “unusual.” The van was used for business purposes in a town close to where her body was found and the owner said he sold it on in fear - precisely because of the near identical license plate and its color.

He categorically denied any knowledge of the case except for what he has heard from the media. The Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project is keeping his identity, address, town, occupation and description of his new vehicle fully confidential for safety reasons.

A total of 13 military intelligence agents have been publicly accused of direct involvement and complicity in the killing of Rebelyn by her father, Leoncio Pitao, a.k.a Kumander Parago of the New People’s Army (NPA) who claimed the same men were behind the killing of his brother Danilo, a security guard in Tagum City last June.

Task Force Rebelyn officers confirmed their own 13 suspects are the same 13 agents Kumander Parago named in a local radio broadcast aired the week after Rebelyn’s death. At the same time, investigators say their work is complicated by the fact that serious feuds within the NPA mean they cannot rule out the possibility she was the victim of an internal revenge attack. Her father has been accused of being behind numerous killings including NPA members suspected to be military informers.

The 13 soldiers were all ordered under threat of legal sanction to appear in front of a one day special hearing into the case organized by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in Davao on April 1. Eleven of them did so –“appearing” and answering questions from CHR chair Leila de Lima from behind a makeshift interview room away from the public at the Royal Mandaya Hotel. One has subsequently issued a writ of amparo through his lawyers against De Lima and the CHR on the basis they have put his personal security at risk.

The regional director of the CHR, lawyer Alberto Sipaco Jr., has called the writ and a local judge’s agreement to uphold it, bizarre. “We are not holding him, so there is no case to answer,” Sipaco told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project in an interview in Davao on April 15.

No as ‘lucky’

For reasons that are not yet fully clear, the officers of Task Force Rebelyn have not been so “lucky” as the CHR and have yet to be granted access to any of their 13 primary suspects. The latter have all invoked their constitutional right against self-incrimination on the advice of their own personal lawyers according to senior regional Philippine National Police (PNP) lawyer Rey Manug, chief of Police Regional Legal Service for Region 11.

So far, the officers in charge have only been able to verify the identities of six of the main suspects. The remaining seven from a different intelligence unit have all refused to send in photographs and the investigation seems unsure as to where to go next. Frustrated by the military, they now seem to be looking into possible NPA feuding. Officers are saying they are receiving “some” cooperation from one of the intelligence units concerned – the Military Intelligence Battalion (MIB) through its army command. The second unit is reportedly not responding to any police requests at all.

The police say they have heard from a named senior army source that this second unit’s regional commander, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Cacayuran asked superiors in Manila for instruction on how to respond to written police requests to make seven of his agents available for interview - but did not receive any response back.

The unit concerned is the Military Intelligence Group (MIG) 11 which reports directly to the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) which is headquartered in Manila. While seven of the suspects belong to MIG, the other six belong to the MIB which falls under the 10th Army Infantry Division and ultimately, the Eastern Mindanao Command of the AFP.

The missing seven photos appear to have made a mockery of police attempts late last month to see if two of three witnesses to Rebelyn’s physical abduction could identify any of the four men involved in taking her at gunpoint. Two of them reportedly rode a tricycle as passengers with Rebelyn - and two allegedly sat waiting in a parked white van with a reported license plate LPG 588 in the early evening of March 4 on the road approaching Bago Gallera D’oro Subdivision.

The two witnesses, tricycle driver Danny Pelicano and fellow passenger Dina Talaboc failed to positively identify anybody from the 150 photographs they were presented on March 29. The AFP provided the 150 photographs, say the police. A third witness, who provided police with the vehicle description and license plate which has since proved not yet to have been issued by the Land Transportation Office, has since disappeared. Police told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project they believe that Bambi Ajuas who was the driver of a tricycle in front of Danny’s is “somewhere in Cagayan.”

A crime too far

Rebelyn’s killing appeared to have shocked a country well used to arbitrary and political killings and disappearances. The manner of her death and the fact that one way or another, she may have been targeted simply for being her father’s daughter, has elicited deep concern and condemnation throughout the media, human rights and activist communities, the political and diplomatic communities and Malacanang Palace. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has urged the case solved.

Military heads and the defense chief also lined up to condemn the killing and were quick to acknowledge that many would immediately –and “unfairly”– accuse them of complicity. Major Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the 10th Infantry Division was widely quoted last month as being adamant there would be “no whitewash –even if the suspects turn out to be from the military.”

He promised the army would give the investigative authorities a “free hand on this,” claiming the attack was “beyond the fighting between the AFP and the NPA, but was an attack against humanity.”

He was quoted as saying he spoke, not simply as a military man, but “as a father.”

But Cabangbang also flatly denied the military conducted surveillance on the Pitao family.

Yet this was challenged last week by the Pitao family speaking to us at the rooftop of Davao City Hall during a small mass held among family and friends to mark the 40th day since Rebelyn was killed. Their claims are backed up by the recorded testimony given to us by the senior consultant nursing adviser at the John Paul II College in Davao City, where Rebelyn’s elder sister studied, when we finally tracked him down. The senior consultant nursing adviser, Manny Sagaral, who says he has yet to be interviewed by the police, said Rio was under surveillance from sometime in 2006 until she graduated in March 2007.

He claimed a clinical instructor at the school told him and other staff that two men on a motorcycle had come looking for Rio and asking her whereabouts.

“Rio had already gone home at that time,” he said. “There was also a time when they came asking for her schedules, but they did not tell people who they were and so we did not tell them anything. We already knew that Rio was Kumander Parago’s daughter -so we were especially careful about divulging information we believe might endanger her life.

“There were also people looking for her before that time – 2006. We were asking those people who they were, but they would not tell us. A clinical instructor was also very specific and told us that people had also gone to the Mercy Medical Mission Hospital where she was training to find her.

“They were approaching different people at the school so we could not pinpoint if they were the same people. But it happened on several occasions.”

Sagaral went on. He claimed:

“I have a clinical instructor here who is married to an intelligence agent and one of his subordinates said ‘Oh you are a clinical instructor there? We were trying to case a student there,’ – referring to Rio.”

If true, Sagaral’s testimony flatly contradicts claims made by the 10th Army Infantry Division that the Pitao family was never put under surveillance.

The senior nursing consultant and teacher added however that while “there was a very strong perception among us [the teaching staff] that those people casing her were military intelligence,” he was also sure they were acting legally.

“It is probable that it was a legal operation coming from the higher ups,” he said. “They were casing the daughter to catch the father and it is also probable that this operation was not connected to the operation against Rebelyn.”

Asked his thoughts about what might have happened to Rio’s sister and whether he thought the military was involved, he said: “There is a very strong possibility that it is not within the mainstream. There are always units which do dirty jobs. That is what I believe –but those people casing Rio were not the same people.”

Sagaral added he thought it “a shame” Rio had been forced to quit her new job as a nurse for safety reasons. “She studied here from 2003 to 2007 and was a very diligent student. Even in school she had a very positive outlook on life,” he said. “Davao Medical Center would have considered her as an asset. She wanted to contribute to society and I hope she does. I believe she does not share the ideology of her father.”

Reports that Rebelyn Pitao’s elder sister was being ‘cased’ while she was still a student nurse surfaced when the family was asked after last week’s 40th day mass for Rebelyn if they could point to anything suspicious or unusual that might help the investigation. Rio told us how she had been informed by her then teachers that people were asking about her. She says she never saw those allegedly tracking her, but that staff in the hospital where she was on work placement alerted her school after two unidentified men claiming to be relatives came asking for information on her.

We initially went to the small busy hospital down by the waterfront to speak to the staff. However nobody was available to talk and they requested we try and find her former tutor instead.

“We told her she had to be careful with her life,” said Manny Sagaral, senior nursing consultant back at Rio’s former school.

Police investigators at Camp Catitipan said they had heard reports the sister had been followed at one point but they did not follow it up. They said they did not think the individuals were military.

“It was an internal problem within the New People’s Army,” said regional Philippine National Police spokesperson Superintendent Querubin Manalang – “maybe some of his [Kumander Parago’s] comrades were doing it.”

In the wake of Rebelyn’s killing and given a possible continuing threat against her family, Rio quit her new nursing job in the city while her brother Redford has been pulled out of school. They have since moved house and now live in an undisclosed location with their mother Evangeline.

Another brother, Ryan, reportedly left the family to join his father’s NPA unit in 2005 after allegedly being accosted in a Davao street by two men armed with knives.

Speaking to us at the rooftop of Davao City Hall last Wednesday after mass and prayers for her daughter, Mrs. Pitao told us she was not happy with the official investigation saying it was not “independent. “ But neither did she seem too happy with the one-day public inquiry conducted earlier this month by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

“Everybody knows who we are,” she said indicating her two children. “We don’t hide our faces – so why did they hide theirs?” she asked referring to 11 of the 13 military officers who were forced by subpoena to testify on April 1 and did so from behind a makeshift interview room away from the public at the Royal Mandaya Hotel.

Mrs. Pitao, who wrongly believes the army is part of the official police investigation, also complained that the family was not being kept informed about the case.

That is neither accurate nor fair according to Colonel Aaron Aquino, chief of the PNP’s regional Criminal Investigation and Detective Management Division.

“After the death of Rebelyn, we wrote two letters to the family -one to Mrs. Pitao and one to her husband. The cell number of Task Force Rebelyn was given to them, but they are not collaborating. After the funeral, we wrote another letter –but it was unable to be delivered. We sent somebody to their house but found it all boarded up. They have moved and we cannot find them.”

Officers did not say if or how their letter to Rebelyn’s father, Kumander Parago, was ever delivered - but it was relatively easy for us to find and speak to the Pitao family ourselves. We did so two days before our meeting with the police investigators and within a day of arriving in Davao. To be fair, it is not clear what kind of welcome the police might get from the family - even though the task force and city mayor Rodrigo Duterte have jointly offered a reward of PhP 500,000 (USD 10,638) for information that can help catch the killers.

Range of motives

The investigation also has another critic alongside Mrs. Pitao.

“I have been in investigation for 20 years including work with the office of the Ombudsman, working on graft cases and working as a special prosecutor,” CHR regional director Alberto Sipaco told us from his office on Quimpo Boulevard. “If I were in charge, I would have it solved. Investigation is very tedious but it is not good enough for the authorities to say -as they have been saying- they are facing a blank wall. You should never stop. Not give up. Not ever.”

To be fair, the police do not seem to have used the “blank wall” expression or anything similar. Instead, they reiterated they were still looking into “a range of different motives.”

One of these remains the possibility that Rebelyn was killed because of an internal NPA vendetta.

But did Sipaco’s comments mean he thought the investigation was not doing enough?

“I would rather say that much and a lot more should be done to secure the objective,” he said.

“She had been raped twice, once by a man and once by a blunt object. When I went and saw her mother and heard what the autopsy report said, I could not believe anybody could do such a thing. You hear that kind of stuff and you begin to suspect everybody.

“When she was discovered there was no rigor mortis (stiffening of the body). Blood was still oozing from her wounds. It shows she had just been killed when she was dumped there around 3 or 4 a.m. Her body was still soft.”

That last statement appears in contrast to police claims made last Friday that Rebelyn’s body had been floating in the small canal “the whole day” before she was found. If it was ever there, no trace of semen was taken by forensic examiners that could have provided a lead according to police -precisely because she had been in the water for so long. “It would have been washed away,” said Colonel Aquino.

As well as being mildly critical of the investigation, Sipaco says he has also been disappointed by the reaction of the military –especially in response to the CHR’s own attempts to investigate what happened.

“We are looking for facts: Of the 13 men named, 11 were presented to us [during the April 1 hearings]. Our intention was to bring them to answer questions in public: We were set up and mandated by the Constitution to serve the public interest and this very much is in the public interest. But because we ordered them to testify under oath, the military argued there was coercion.

“One of the men mentioned –a sergeant in the army [the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project is not repeating his name] - has filed a case against the CHR –a writ of amparo that we now have to answer. It is silly. It is not for us to prove that we have a case to answer for, it is for him to make the case that we have transgressed his constitutional rights.”

And yet given suspicions, deep emotions and grave anger generated by the brutality of the crime and in the context of a continuing and grim conflict between the army and the NPA, particularly in Paquibato District, the danger is that anybody named as a possible suspect may well be targeted for attack.

The NPA have already threatened to “arrest” the military agents accused by Parago and put them on trial in a so-called “People’s Court.” There is little doubt that suspects whether innocent or guilty would receive summary justice from the wrong end of a gun.

We asked Sipaco whether the CHR was following any other leads –and while he claimed the search for the vehicle had reached an effective dead end, he did acknowledge earlier media reports saying residents in the vicinity where Rebelyn was found were claiming her body was not the first to be dumped there.

“I heard that too. I don’t know the dates or cases, - we are a small office and cover such a big region, but maybe the police know.”

Sadly the police didn’t – and yet they conceded it was useful lead to follow and promised to do so.

“One of our people at Task Force Rebelyn is head of police in Davao del Norte," Colonel Aquino told us. “And so we can follow up with him.”

He added the police were very keen to hear from those media which had information to share.


We asked officers what the possible connection of a black Toyota Hilux pick-up van was to the investigation.

The investigation team had no idea. And yet on March 11, Matina Police Station 3 in Davao City sent in a formal letter of request to the local Land Transportation Office (LTO) here in Davao to have the owner of a black Toyota Hilux pick-up van identified “in connection with the abduction of Rebelyn Pitao.” We saw the letter along with two others sent in by police.

They were shown to use by officials from the LTO whose names we are not revealing: Two letters came from Matina Police Station 3 and one was from the 11th Regional Criminal Investigation and Detection Group at Camp Domingo Leonor in Davao City. Two of the letters concerned the possible owner of a white van – one letter cited a Mitsubishi Adventurer – giving the license plate LPG-588 which turns out not yet to have been issued. The third letter asked for details on the owner of a black Toyota pick-up.

Task Force Rebelyn police say they have no idea why the request to investigate a Toyota black pickup was made and what the possible connection is. The pick-up is registered to a woman in Davao City.

The task force says it has a big folder full of pictures of different white vans but no exact match as of yet.

The LTO office meanwhile had no record of the police making any written request for details of the white van with the very similar license plate that we asked them to track down and put through their computer system.

A local media report published on March 17 - two weeks after Rebelyn’s death, claimed police were looking into that particular van but had yet to identify the owner. Yet when we spoke to the investigators, they said it was “looked over and came back negative”. The former owner, who sold it on a week after the killing because of his own security concerns, told us the exact same thing although he said the check was made just a few days after the killing and before he sold it for a “poor price.”

The former owner was wholly cooperative but clearly nervous when we spoke to him and asked how we had tracked him down –but so too would absolutely anybody in such a position given the violence linked to relations between the military and the NPA here.

When asked why the owner of the van couldn’t have just sought permission from the LTO to legally change the license plate in place of selling it - and so help protect himself from unwarranted reprisals - Task Force Rebelyn officers told us it would take “about a year” to do so.

Investigations are never easy and ones such as these given the political context are especially difficult. Yet confusion over the relevance of a black pick-up and dates over when and how a vehicle with a remarkably similar number plate was identified and formally or informally cleared suggest that communications and relations between the eight groups which together comprise Task Force Rebelyn could be improved.

At the same time, an inability to find and keep in touch with the Pitao family or to visit local residents who say Rebelyn was not the first victim of an extrajudicial killing who has surfaced there may also suggest the group do not have sufficient resources or personnel to deploy properly.

But contrary to claims of the regional CHR director, Task Force Rebelyn says it is not giving up nor will it ever. The group will not be formally disbanded until the case is solved.

If ever it is.

“We were just yesterday going down the list of motives and there are many,” said Colonel Aquino.

“Because of the work of Kumander Parago there are a lot of angles and motives that are being considered. We want to take them one by one: We have done the photo gallery presentation. We are now heading towards another angle. We are looking into the case of Roger Narvasa or Commander Mimi. He was an NPA commander under Parago and he was killed in front of his wife by Parago’s group in mid-February in Paquibato District. He was killed because he was suspected of collaborating with the military.

“Parago called the husband and accused him of doing such things and he wanted to meet up. When they reached the venue for the meeting, three of Parago’s men approached Commander Mimi and without saying anything, he was shot in the head. This is one angle we would like to check –revenge. Commander Mimi’s relatives may have a motive.”

The Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project sought a response from Kumander Parago and his colleagues late last week on the claims made by Task Force Rebelyn. Unfortunately we have yet to hear back. Fighting and occasional aerial bombardment is reported in the area and local NPA forces are not easily contactable. At the same time, Roger Narvasa’s widow is believed to have left Paquibato District for an unknown location. We hope to continue the investigation and speak to both parties to get their response as soon as possible.

And as for the 13 military intelligence suspects? Where will the official Task Force Rebelyn investigation go next and what hopes do police chiefs have that the brutal murder of the 20-year-old elementary school teacher and daughter of Parago will ever be solved?

Senior officers in charge acknowledge that while they had only so far received six out of the 13 photographs and the suspects’ constitutional rights were blocking the investigation, they could in principle go in to the army camps, arrest the suspects and then subject them to a line-up.

That would be a possible legal way forward.

It would also be a huge step for the investigation but a highly politically sensitive one. Invariably it would need some serious pressure from Manila.

So what is the status of the investigation now?

“As of now Military Intelligence Group (MIG) are the primary suspects,” Colonel Aquino told us in Camp Catitipan. “The six people presented [from the Military Intelligence Battalion via their photos] - are not yet cleared. They are still suspects until the time that we get their full cooperation.

“I think there is a big possibility this will be solved if the military will truly cooperate with us. The problem is we are having a hard time to investigate because these people accused by Parago are not cooperating. We are trying to ask the commanders to present these people – but I don’t know.” (Alan Davis. The author is the director of the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project and Special Projects of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.)

No comments: