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Runaway justice

Publication Date : 24-10-2012

 

One man in custody, two others still at large, trial yet to begin one year after the crime. That, in a nutshell, is the depressing reality of the case relating to the murder of Italian missionary Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, who was gunned down outside his convent in Arakan town, North Cotabato in southern Philippines, in October last year.

Tentorio was shot eight times in the chest by a man who, in a horrifyingly familiar fashion, then calmly walked to a waiting motorcycle and sped away.

The assassin left behind the lifeless body of a foreign priest who had chosen to live in the hinterlands of the country since 1978, in the company of poor and powerless Filipinos whose upliftment Tentorio had dedicated his life and ministry to. Father Pops became known in the area as a champion of human rights, an outspoken opponent of large-scale mining and “a true servant who represents the best of humanity,” as he was described by those who came in tears after he fell to a hail of bullets.

Three months after the murder, a certain Jimmy Ato was captured in Arakan and identified by authorities as the main suspect in the killing.

He has remained in custody all this time, awaiting trial, while other suspects, including Ato’s brother and alleged accomplice, are still at large.

Fr. Peter Geremia, the assistant parish priest of Arakan and head of the Justice for Father Pops Movement, noted that as of October 17, the first anniversary of Tentorio’s killing, there has been no word from the Department of Justice on the status of the case, except a conversation Geremia said he had with Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan on September 13.

When Geremia followed up the case, he said Baraan told him: “Sorry, Father, to tell you that the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) doubts your witnesses.”

Those witnesses surfaced in March this year, claiming that the assassination had been planned by Jan Corbala, also known as Commander Iring, the leader of a paramilitary group in the area called the Bagani Tribal Force. In July, however, Geremia decried what he said was the military’s apparent intent to hinder the case by refusing to allow NBI agents to enter its camps in North Cotabato to investigate the Bagani group’s involvement in the case.

That protest went nowhere; the case at this point is nowhere near resolution as it was one year ago.

We have said it many times—President Benigno Aquino’s administration, while it has made encouraging strides in such areas as economic reform, the fight against corruption and making peace with Islamic insurgents in Mindanao, might well forfeit all such hard-won gains over the one basic task it has miserably failed at: law and order.

The ability of Father Pop’s killers to evade the law with impunity is not an aberration. It is a continuing, and most damning, affirmation of the government’s impotence to throw the book at powerful criminals and well-connected lowlifes who are able to count on the protection of shadowy forces in society, not to mention the glacial pace of the justice system, to shun accountability for their crimes.

They may not be as well-known, but those suspects have now joined a rather illustrious rogues’ gallery of master escapists like retired major general Jovito Palparan, still scot-free despite a so-called massive manhunt against him. Are we to believe that no one in the military and police communities—for all the billions of pesos of unaudited intelligence funds lavished on them—have yet any idea where their erstwhile colleague is, or who might be helping him hide?

Palparan’s non-capture grows farcical by the minute. So does that of Palawan governor Joel Reyes and other suspects in the murder of environmentalist and radio broadcaster Gerry Ortega, with its bad-novel tale of assumed identities and escorted escapes right through the Immigration area of the country’s international airport. Reyes is reportedly in Bangkok under a new name; who knows, the next time we hear of him he might even have become one of the city’s famed “ladyboys”, just to elude deportation.

But he needn’t work too hard, because the Philippine government appears to be in no hurry to haul him, or Palparan, or the cult leader and former congressman Ruben Ecleo Jr., or the killers of Father Pops, before the bar of justice. 

Aquino can announce to the world ad nauseam that it’s morning again in the Philippines, but all that putative progress won’t matter until the fundamental idea that crime does not pay becomes, once again, a reality honoured in this country not in the breach but in the observance.

 

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