MANILA, Philippines—The 36 followers of Agbimuddin Kiram who were intercepted by the Navy off Tawi-Tawi on Wednesday with a cache of arms after apparently fleeing Sabah are to be charged with illegal possession of firearms, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday.
De Lima said the 35 men and a woman who claimed to be members of the Sultanate of Sulu’s Royal Security Forces (RSF) would be brought to court for inquest on charges of illegal possession of firearms at the least.
“They can be charged immediately with illegal possession of firearms and other deadly weapons,’’ De Lima said at a Malacañang news briefing, adding the inquest does not preclude the filing of other charges against them.
On criticisms the government was quicker to file charges against them than protesting Malaysia’s alleged inhumane treatment of Filipinos, she said, “This group has committed unlawful and criminal acts, and we can’t set these aside.’’
The interception of the group came a month after Agbimuddin Kiram and his men crossed by speedboats from Tawi-Tawi to Lahad Datu on Feb. 9 to press the sultanate’s claim to Sabah, triggering a standoff with Malaysian forces that eventually led to battles in which the Malaysians threw in aerial and artillery bombardment. More than 60 people have been reported killed since, nine of them members of the Malaysian security forces.
The Philippine Navy vessel PS38 intercepted the first boat of 18 men and one woman in the waters off Omapoy Island at 6:35 a.m. Wednesday and the second boat ferrying 18 others in the waters off Andulingan Island about an hour later. Both islands are in the Tawi-Tawi group, De Lima said.
She said both boats yielded “assorted firearms.’’ One of the passengers was wounded.
De Lima said the boats’ occupants identified themselves as members of the RSF, and this was confirmed by some witnesses. Agbimuddin was not among them. She said she did not know if the investigators obtained any information from them about his whereabouts.
“From all indications they are probably…they were part of the Raja Muda group who went there and then got involved in the conflict with Malaysian forces and then came back home, and one of them is wounded,’’ she said, referring to the title that Agbimuddin Kiram carries that means crown prince in English.
She said they were not “fall guys.’’
Agbimuddin’s followers were taken to a naval facility in Panglima Sugala town in Tawi-Tawi and interrogated by a team from the National Bureau of Investigation and the Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police. Then they would be brought to a local court for inquest proceedings, De Lima said.
“They are now assessing, evaluating and preparing the appropriate charges,’’ she said of the NBI-CIDG team.” They will be detained there even for purposes of inquest. We realized there are security concerns involved here because it’s a group of armed men.’’
Meantime, a fact-finding committee from NBI and CIDG was still investigating the role and the kind of charges to be filed against key personalities in Manila behind the expedition of Agbimuddin and 200 followers to Sabah.
“I’d rather that we wait for the results of the ongoing probe before we can announce who are these personalities. It’s not wise, it’s not prudent because, you know, you’re not supposed to be telegraphing your punches. And the investigation is ongoing, it might imperil, it might give them the chance to really prepare, etcetera,’’ she said, responding to questions about the culpability of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram and his daughter Jacel.
Contrary to earlier reports that this has been set aside, the angle of conspiracy behind the incursion was still being investigated, she said.
De Lima said there have been no talks between Malaysia and the Philippines about the possible “extradition’’ of suspects to Kuala Lumpur.
“I think it’s basic that the respective countries can assume primary jurisdiction for the violations of their respective laws. So the Philippine authorities, the Philippine courts would have the primary jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, and punish violations of Philippine laws. And Malaysian law is, I think, like that also. The Malaysian authorities would have the primary jurisdiction also to look into the violations; to look into the violations of their own laws,’’ she said.