DOJ taps 5 top prosecutors for SAF probe

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has designated five seasoned state prosecutors to build up possible criminal and administrative cases in connection with the killing of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) policemen during an encounter with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25.

By Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 7, 2015 – 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Justice (DOJ) has designated five seasoned state prosecutors to build up possible criminal and administrative cases in connection with the killing of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) policemen during an encounter with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25.

In Department Order No. 34 issued yesterday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima also gave the special investigating team composed of state prosecutors and agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) 60 days to submit their report and recommendations.

The members of the panel from the DOJ’s National Prosecution Service (NPS) are Assistant State Prosecutors Juan Paulo Navera, Irwin Maraya, Gino Paolo Santiago, Jocelyn Dugay, and assistant prosecution attorney Ethel Rea Suril.

They were tasked to evaluate, assess and determine the sufficiency of the evidence gathered, and guide the NBI as to what should further be done in order to build a strong case for the possible eventual prosecution of the charges in court.

De Lima ordered the team to get the official reports of the Philippine National Police, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPPAP), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI), Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and PNP Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) on the incident.

“Based on the evidence gathered, the NPS shall identify and formulate the appropriate criminal charges that may be filed against those found to have most probably committed a criminal offense, as well as prepare the evidence in support of the prosecution of said criminal charges for purposes of preliminary investigation and the filing of the appropriate charges before the courts,” the order read.

De Lima, who will personally supervise the DOJ probe, also directed the team to immediately report to her any significant finding.

“Because of the wide scope and coverage of the investigation, the rate of progress across all areas will expectedly not be uniform, and the team will most likely achieve breakthroughs in some areas, on the one hand, and encounter dead-ends in other areas. For this purpose, in case the team arrives at any significant finding on any aspect of the investigation, the same shall also be brought to the immediate attention of the undersigned,” the DOJ chief added.

De Lima earlier hinted that the charges of multiple murder, homicide and other offenses could be filed against the MILF rebels that clashed with SAF operatives on a mission to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, and his Filipino cohort Basit Usman in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

“We are looking at criminal liabilities for various offenses, such as multiple murder, homicide, serious physical injuries, direct assault, illegal possession of firearms, violation of RA 9851 or crimes under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), obstruction of justice and others,” she said.

The NBI has sent agents to Mamasapano as part of the official DOJ probe in the killing of the SAF men.

NBI director Virgilio Mendez said agents from Mindanao would lead the data gathering.

Mendez said information they have gathered would be shared with NPS.

He declined to further discuss the case to avoid jeopardizing their case.

The leadership of the PNP is vouching for the integrity of the police officers who were tapped to be part of the BOI that will probe the Mamasapano encounter.

PNP officer-in charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said the police officers working in the BOI have excelled in positions they held previously and managed to maintain untainted reputations.

“We are giving the public the names of the PNP officers who will compose the BOI that will conduct an objective, impartial and thorough investigation into the Mamasapano incident last January 25 in Maguindanao,” he said.

Director Benjamin Magalong, chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), will head the BOI.

Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II ordered BOI created to investigate the operation that led to the killing of the 44 SAF men.

Magalong, a former SAF Battalion commander, said the board has already documented more than 300 signed affidavits of SAF members, military officials, witnesses and other civilians who may have any knowledge on the incident.

The other BOI members are: Director Catalino Rodriguez, currently director of the Directorate for Research and Development (DRD); Chief Superintendent John Sosito; Senior Superintendents Robert Po, Ronald dela Rosa, Cesar Hawthorne Binag, Bengino Durana Jr., and Chief Inspector David Joy Duarte.

Senate inquiry

Despite his impending early retirement, PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima will still be called on Monday to attend the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano massacre.

Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs chairperson Sen. Grace Poe expressed hope that the Senate panel will be able to get the facts straight about the Mamasapano incident, from the crafting of the intelligence and operation plans up to the execution.

Poe also wanted to know from Police Officer 2 Christopher Lalan the circumstances behind the deaths of 35 members of the 55th SAF company, who served as blocking force while their comrades in the 84th Seaborne assaulted the suspected terrorist’s lair.

Lalan is the lone survivor from his team, the 55th SAF Company.

He reportedly fought it out and killed at least four to five rebels who attacked and killed the rest of his colleagues on the morning of Jan. 25.

Superintendent Raymond Train, leader of the assault team, was also invited to the Senate probe.

Poe said the committee also wanted to hear the sides of Secretary Roxas and PNP OIC Espina on why they were left in the dark about the covert operations.

Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, who heads the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission, was also invited after his name was dragged into the issue as his office reportedly funded the operations against Marwan, Poe said.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said yesterday that any operation that results in the death of 44 state forces could not be considered as a “good mission.”

He said even if Marwan was killed, this could not be worth the deaths of so many troops.

“I don’t think that 44 dead SAF policemen is a good mission at all. I don’t know if the arrest or killing of Marwan is even worth 44 lives of our best-trained policemen,” Marcos said.

Meanwhile, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) had monitored the arrival of the SAF operatives hours before the bloody clash in Mamasapano.

Absalum Cerveza, MNLF spokesman, said as early as 2 a.m. MNLF members had alerted their main camp regarding a convoy of military vehicles heading for Maguindanao.

He said the MNLF initially believed that the target of the operation was their camp but when the police commandos began maneuvering towards the headquarters of the MILF 105 Brigade they just waited in camp in case fighting broke out.

“MNLF reconnaissance team monitored the troop movement until we were sure that they were heading towards the MILF camp,” he said.

Cerveza said a large contingent of MNLF fighters were on standby to defend their community.

Cerveza said MNLF commanders were ordered not to engage the members of the SAF or MILF. With Aie Balagtas See, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Perseus Echeminada