RTC acquits 2 Aetas of terrorism charges

Published July 19, 2021, 2:23 PM

by Jeffrey Damicog

Regional Trial Court (RTC)

Two Aeta tribesmen who were arrested in Aug. 2020 by the military have been acquitted by the Olongapo City regional trial court (RTC) of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020.

RTC Judge Melani Fay V. Tadili granted the demurrer to evidence filed by Japer T. Gurong and Junior U. Ramos in an order issued last July 15.

“WHEREFORE, the Demurrer to Evidence is GRANTED. These cases are ordered DISMISSED on the ground of insufficiency of evidence,” Judge Tadili ruled.

A demurrer to evidence is filed by an accused in a criminal case to dismiss the charges on allegation of weakness of the evidence presented by the prosecution.

If granted by the court, the charges are dismissed and the dismissal is tantamount to an acquittal. If denied, the case will proceed to trial.

Gurung and Ramos were arrested on Aug. 26, 2020 when they were identified as members of the communist terrorist group New People’s Army (NPA) during a firefight with government troops.

They were arrested without warrants. The military claimed that ammunition, grenade and instruments for detonation were seized from them.

“After a careful examination of the records, the Court holds that the prosecution failed to discharge the burden of proving the identifies of the accused as perpetrators of the crime of violation of Section 4 R.A. No 11479 (ATA). Thus, the case for violation of this law against the accused must be dismissed,” the court’s order stated.

Contrary to what the prosecution alleged, Judge Tadili said that sworn statements of witnesses from the military–Army 2nd Lieutenants Fritz A. Antoma and Ian Dominic C. Oran– “show that no declaration was made that they saw the accused during the gunfight.”

Tadili said: “They testified that they saw accused during the gunfight. If they did see the accused, they could have easily said so in their sworn statements as they did in their Judicial Affidavits. They could have provided the accused’s distinct features, such as skin color, height and hair type, and also clothes, that would set them apart from other armed persons. They could not just have referred them as NPA rebels.”

The judge also said:

“Another blatant inconsistency in the soldiers’ declarations is on the profiling of the accused. 2LT Entoma and 2LT Oran testified that they were able to recognize the accused because they were shown pictures of the accused in a briefing before the operation.

“On the other hand, in their sworn statements, they did not say that they were shown such pictures. They merely said that they recognized the enemies to be NPA members and that these NPA members could be recognized through the given descriptions.”

The judge said the testimony of Entoma and Oran was also “contradicted by the testimony of 2LT Fragio (first name was not indicated in the order), making the former’s testimony not credible.”

The judge recounted that during the cross examination, “2LT Fragio testified that no pictures of the accused, as well as their videos, were shown to the soldiers during this one briefing conducted during the operation…”

“The inconsistencies of the soldiers on the presence of the accused at the crime scene and the profiling of the accused, and the presence of the danger signals in their identification of the accused cast doubt on their testimonies that accused were perpetrators of the crime of violation of Section 4 of R. A. No. 11479,” the judge said.

Thus, the judge ruled that since there is no proof that the two Aetas committed acts of terrorism, “their warrantless arrest was unlawful.”

“The invalidity of an arrest leads to several consequences, one of which is any search incident to the arrest becomes invalid thus rendering the evidence acquired as constitutionally inadmissible,” the judge added.

The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), which represented the two Aetas in the case, lauded the RTC’s ruling.

“Pinagtanggol po ng PAO at ng National Commission on Indigenous Peoples or NCIP, nagtandem po o nagtulungan para po mabigyan po sila ng kalayaan sa araw na ito (The PAO and the NCIP defended them so that they can be freed today),” said PAO Chief Persida V. Rueda-Acosta during a virtual press conference held Monday, July 19.

Acosta appealed to the head of the Olongapo City Jail to heed the order of the RTC to release the two Aetas.

“Wala naman po silang kaso na iba pa kaya pwede po ba palayain nila yan. Dahil pag may nangyari sa kanila diyan mananagot po kayo sa batas (They don’t have other cases so they should be freed. If something happens to them, you will be held accountable under the law),” she told officials of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP).

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and NCIP have also issued a joint statement on the court ruling.

“The decision has clearly shown that our Justice system works, hears and decides cases fairly, without fear or favor. Both NTF-ELCAC and NCIP ceaselessly worked together to remove our IP brothers from exploitative clutches of the CPP-NPA-NDF including their front organizations, like Karapatan, so that their case will the justly heard under our system of laws,” they said.