The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) welcomed Monday, July 19, the decision of an Olongapo City court to acquit two Aetas who were the first individuals to be charged as terrorists under the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020.
Aeta farmers Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos were granted the demurrer to evidence by the Olongapo Region Trial Court Branch 97 after they successfully challenged the sufficiency of evidence filed against them for allegedly firing at members of the Philippine Army in Zambales in August 2020.
“The decision has clearly shown that our justice system works, hears, and decides cases fairly without fear or favor,” the NTF-ELCAC said in a statement.
Gurung and Ramos were considered as the test cases for the implementation of the much-feared ATA as they were accused by the government of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Critics of the new law claimed that the “vagueness” of the law might be used by the government as a weapon in a crackdown against dissenters and activists.
The two Aeta farmers were facing terrorism charges for alleged violation of Section 4 of Republic Act 11479 or the ATA for “conspiring, confederating and cooperating” in engaging in terroristic acts that are “intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, or endanger a person’s life” against members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Accordingly, Gurung and Ramos were part of an Aeta group that was evacuating due to “intense military operations and continued bombings” in their ancestral land in San Marcelino, Zambales on August 21, 2020 when they were caught by members of the 73rd Recoinassance Company, 7th Infantry Division (7ID).
At the time, the military were flushing out suspected NPA rebels in the area when a shooting incident happened, killing Sgt. Rudil Dilao. Soldiers who stood as witnesses blamed the incident on Gurung and Ramos.
However, the Olongapo City court said the prosecution “failed to discharge the burden of proving the identities of the accused as perpetrators of the crime.”
It said the soldiers identified the Aetas as the ones who fired the gun during the shooting incident as stated in their judicial affidavit, but did not indicate it in their sworn statements, thus, creating an inconsistency as to who the real perpetrators of the crime were.
Gurung and Ramos were initially represented by the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) which used their case to challenge the constitutionality of the ATA before the Supreme Court (SC). The petition had been junked.
Gurung and Ramos then dropped the NUPL lawyers as legal assistance from the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) came in.
The NTF-ELCAC, a strong advocate of the anti-terrorism law, said Gurung and Ramos’ case had been “exploited” by some groups and “used it to move for the invalidation” of the ATA.
“We are one with our Aeta brothers and their families in their quest for justice, and we will be with them as they walk free and return to their families and ancestral land,” the NTF-ELCAC noted.