Army Allegedly Failing to Cooperate With Rebelyn Murder Probe

Police say they have yet to be granted access to army officers they consider primary suspects.

Army Allegedly Failing to Cooperate With Rebelyn Murder Probe

Police say they have yet to be granted access to army officers they consider primary suspects.

Monday, 27 April, 2009
Despite the military’s insistence that it shares widespread outrage over the brutal killing of Rebelyn Pitao and its promises to cooperate fully with police, the commanders and agents of two army intelligence units appear to be doing no such thing.



Six weeks after she was snatched, raped and brutally killed some time between March 4 and 5, Rebelyn’s family are still waiting for justice.



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 those in charge of the investigation told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, PHRRP, they have yet to be granted access to any of the 13 army officers they consider primary suspects.



The police said they have not even been sent photographs of seven of those they want to question.



Task Force Rebelyn, the official police body investigating the case, is headquartered at the regional Philippine National Police, PNP, headquarters at Camp Catitipan 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.



PHRRP recently visited Davao City and the surrounding countryside in an effort to find out what progress was being made in the investigation.



BRUTAL KILLING



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, Carmen District, in Davao del Norte on 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. She had been riding home from work on a tricycle the night before when she was snatched by four armed men.



“There were rope markings around her neck and mud all over her body,” her mother Evangeline told the PHRRP when we first met her last month.



As well as meeting with senior police officers from the task force and the regional director of the Commission on Human Rights, CHR, we interviewed the Pitao family and were able to track down and speak to a former teacher of Rebelyn’s 22-year-old elder sister, Rio, who claimed she 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 City, 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 that of a white van a witness told police was used to abduct Rebelyn.



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 out of fear - precisely because of the near identical license plate and its colour. He categorically denied any knowledge of the case except for what he has heard from the media.



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.



When we spoke to the investigators, they said the vehicle had been “looked over and came back negative”. The former owner told us the exact same thing although he said the check was made just a few days after the killing.



Rebelyn’s father Leoncio Pitao, aka Kumander Parago of the New People’s Army, NPA, accsues 13 military intelligence agents of direct involvement in the killing of his daughter. He alleges that they are the same men who were behind the killing of his brother Danilo, a security guard in Tagum City last June.



Task Force Rebelyn officers have 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 act of revenge. Her father has been accused of being behind numerous killings, including NPA members suspected of being military informers.



The 13 agents were ordered to attend a one-day special hearing into the case organised by CHR in Davao City on April 1. Eleven of them did so, answering questions from CHR chair Leila de Lima in a closed session so as to conceal their identities. One has subsequently issued a writ of amparo through his lawyers against De Lima and the CHR, claiming 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 PHRRP in an interview in Davao City on April 15.



LACK OF MILITARY COOPERATION



For reasons that are not yet fully clear, the officers of Task Force Rebelyn 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 lawyers, according to senior regional PNP lawyer Rey Manug.



So far, the task force officers have only been able to verify the identities of six of the main suspects.



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 two intelligence units linked to the case – 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.



The unit concerned is the Military Intelligence Group, MIG, 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 are part of MIB, which falls under the 10th Army Infantry Division and ultimately, the Eastern Mindanao Command of 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 abduction could identify any of the four men alleged to have been involved in taking her at gunpoint. Two of the suspects reportedly rode a tricycle as passengers with Rebelyn - and two are said to have 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. AFP provided the photographs, say the police. A third witness, who gave police the vehicle description and license plate, has since disappeared.



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 provoked condemnation from the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and the Malacanang Palace. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has publicly called for the case to be resolved.



Military heads have 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.



PITAO FAMILY ALLEGEDLY UNDER SURVEILLANCE



However, this has been challenged by the latter, speaking to PHRRP on the rooftop of Davao City Hall during a small mass held for 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 the city, where Rebelyn’s elder sister studied.



Manny Sagaral, who said he has yet to be interviewed by the police, insisted that Rio was under surveillance from some time 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. [The] 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.”



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



“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,” said Sagaral.



Rio told PHRRP 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 told her she had to be careful with her life,” said Sagaral.



Police investigators at Camp Catitipan said they had heard reports that Rio 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 PNP spokesperson Superintendent Querubin Manalang. “Maybe some of [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 City street by two men armed with knives.



Evangeline told PHRRP 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 by CHR.



“Everybody knows who we are,” she said, motioning towards her two children. “We don’t hide our faces – so why did they hide theirs (referring to the military officers who testified in closed session at the inquiry)?”



Evangeline, 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 [did not reach them]. 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 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 City. 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 equivalent to about 10,500 US dollars for information that can help catch the killers.



CHR CRITICAL OF PROBE



In addition to Evangeline, the investigation has another critic.



“I have been in investigations 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.”



The police do not seem to have spoken of a “blank wall” or anything similar. Instead, they reiterated they were still looking into “a range of different motives”.



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 blood was still oozing from her wounds. It shows she had just been killed when she was dumped around 3 or 4 am. Her body was still soft.”



That last statement appears to conflict with the police claim that Rebelyn’s body had been floating in a canal “the whole day” before she was found.



As well as being mildly critical of the investigation, Sipaco said 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 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.”



Given the brutality of the crime and the continuing and grim conflict between the army and the NPA, the danger is that anybody named as a possible suspect may well be targeted.



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 would be subject to summary justice.



Meanwhile, Task Force Rebelyn says it is not giving up on the case. The group will not be formally disbanded until it is solved.



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



“Because of the work of Kumander Parago there are a lot of angles and motives that are being considered.”



One possibility is that she was killed by NPA members in an act of revenge.



“We are looking into the case of Roger Narvasa or Commander Mimi,” continued Aquino. “He was an NPA commander under Parago,[and] 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.”



PHRRP sought a response from Kumander Parago and his colleagues to the claims made by Task Force Rebelyn. 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?



“I think there is a big possibility this [case] 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…,” said Aquino.



Alan Davis is the director of the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. He is also director of Special Projects at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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