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Justice delayed — still better than none

05:54 PM January 18, 2012

The legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied” can be traced all the way back to Clause 40 of the Magna Carta, enacted in 1215, which specifically “disallowed the selling of justice, or its denial or delay.” More than 900 years after English feudal lords forced this Great Charter on their king and laid the foundation for western jurisprudence, the concept still remains alien to the Philippines where delayed justice is often the best justice that Filipinos can hope for.

The children of Bubby Dacer and Emmanuel Corbito have been waiting for justice for more than 11 years since November 24, 2000 when operatives of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) — then under the command of Gen.  Panfilo “Ping” Lacson — abducted, tortured and executed Dacer and Corbito in a safe house in Cavite.

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Their hopes were raised this past week when Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales reversed the actions of her predecessors and filed murder charges against 10 Philippine Navy officers for their roles in the execution of Navy Ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño on September 27, 1995.

I first wrote about the Pestaño case on December 10, 2007 (“Death of an Ensign”) after reading the moving plea for justice written by Jesuit educator Fr. James Reuter (“Justice at 3 A.M.”) who wrote about this graduate of Ateneo de Manila High School who entered the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and graduated as an Ensign in the Philippine Navy in 1993, when he was then assigned as cargo master on board the BRP Bacolod City.

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Sometime in 1995, Fr. Reuter wrote, Pestaño discovered that “the cargo being loaded onto his vessel included logs that were cut down illegally, were carried to the ship illegally, and were destined to be sold, illegally… Then there were 50 sacks of flour, which were not flour, but shabu (methamphetamine) – worth billions. Literally, billions … And there were military weapons which were destined for sale to the Abu Sayyaf.” As cargo master of the ship, Pestaño refused to approve the illegal cargo despite orders from his superior officers that he do so.

According to Fr. Reuter, “Pestaño’s parents received two phone calls, saying: “Get your son off that ship! He is going to be killed!” When Phillip was given leave at home, his family begged him not to go back. Their efforts at persuasion continued until his last night at home, when Phillip was already in bed.”

“His father came to him and said: “Please, son, resign your commission. Give up your military career. Don’t go back. We want you alive. If you go back to that ship, it will be the end of you!” But Phillip said to his father: “Kawawa ang bayan! (Pity the country)” And he went back to the ship.”

“The scheduled trip was very brief — from Cavite to Roxas Boulevard — it usually took only 45 minutes. But on September 27, 1995, it took one hour and a half. When the ship arrived at Roxas Boulevard, Ensign Pestaño was dead.”

Within 24 hours (talk about “speedy justice”), the Navy investigators determined that Pestaño had committed suicide because a “suicide note” was found in his cabin despite evidence that the note was not in Pestaño’s handwriting. As an honor student at Ateneo engaged to be married to the love of his life in a few months, Pestaño also had no reason take his life.

After two years of persistent prodding by Pestaño’s family, the Philippine Senate conducted an investigation of Pestaño’s death in 1997.  Witnesses at the Senate hearing testified that before he died, Pestaño refused to authorize the loading of 14,000 board feet of illegal hardwood logs in Tawi-Tawi even though its governor, Gerry Matba, had a gift for his good friend, Admiral Pio Carranza.

Over Pestaño’s objections, the illegal logs were loaded in Tawi-Tawi and off-loaded in Cavite just before the ship sailed for its home port in Manila following an “unusual dogleg route” that lasted longer than usual. “An unexplained delay of about one hour and 15 minutes raises the presumption that the prolonged trip was occasioned by the time it took respondents to create the suicide scenario,” Ombudsman Morales said.

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After hearing from numerous witnesses, the Senate Report (#800) concluded: “Pestaño did not kill himself aboard the BRP Bacolod City… He was bludgeoned unconscious and then shot to death somewhere else in the vessel. His body was moved and laid on the bed where it was found.”

“The clear absence of blood spatters, bone fragments or other human tissues is physical evidence more eloquent than a hundred witnesses,” the Senate report observed. “It is impossible for a person who has just sustained a fatal head injury to walk from some other place in his room, lie on his bed and drop dead…”

“He was killed by an assailant, necessarily aboard the BRP Bacolod City”, before it docked at the Navy HQ on Roxas Boulevard. The attempt to make it appear Pestaño killed himself inside his stateroom was so deliberate and elaborate that one person could not have accomplished it by himself.”

Murder, concluded the Senate committee led by Sen. Marcelo Fernan. Pestaño was bludgeoned, shot and his body rigged to appear as a suicide.

But Pestaño was not the only murder victim. Petty 0fficer (PO2) Zosimo Villanueva, the officer who tipped Pestaño about “the concealed bulk of illegal drugs (hidden) in the more than 20 sacks of rice cargoes aboard the ship,” was dispatched by his superiors on a mission, a week after Pestano’s death, where he mysteriously “washed away in a sea mishap”.

Another casualty was Ensign Alvin Parone, the officer who called Pestaño’s parents to warn them of plans to kill their son. He was also killed, then Sen. Alfredo Lim said, “a victim of another unsolved murder.”

Also missing and presumed dead is Petty Officer (PO3) Fidel Tagaytay who was the duty officer on board Pestaño’s ship. When he was summoned to testify before the senate, he disappeared. His wife, Leonila, has been desperately searching for him, begging the authorities to investigate his disappearance. “Absent without leave” is all the Navy brass will tell her.

The Senate in 1997 then directed Ombudsman Aniano Desierto, to “identify the persons who participated in the deliberate attempt to make it appear that Pestaño killed himself.”

Desierto ignored the Senate’s directions. After he was replaced by Merceditas Gutierrez, the Pestaño investigation met with the same, if not greater, indifference as Gutierrez refused to even meet with the parents of Pestaño.

When the parents of Pestaño signed an impeachment complaint against Gutierrez, she finally acted.  As Raul Pangalangan wrote in his Inquirer column, “She dismissed it. To add sting to the injury, she served her dismissal order on Pestaño’s parents the day after they signed the impeachment complaint against her.” [Gutierrez claimed that all the evidence against a conclusion of suicide was purely “circumstantial.”]

The Pestaño family filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the case dismissal by Gutierrez. While the motion was under review, Gutierrez was impeached by the House and she resigned before her Senate trial. So the Pestaño motion was acted upon by the Ombudsman appointed by Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III to replace Gutierrez, Conchita Carpio-Morales.

On January 10, 2012, Morales reversed the decision of her predecessor and filed murder charges against Capt. Ricardo Ordoñez; Cmdr. Reynaldo Lopez, Hospital Man 2 Welmenio Aquino, Lt. Cmdr. Luidegar Casis, Lt. Cmdr. Alfrederick Alba, Machinery Repairman 2 Sandy Miranda, Lt. Cmdr. Joselito Colico, Lt. Cmdr. Ruben Roque, PO1 Carlito Amoroso and PO2 Leonor Igcasan.

It is crystal clear that top Philippine Navy officials were involved in smuggling illegal drugs, arms and logs and lining their pockets with vast sums of money from the traffickers they served. They were not going to allow a principled whistleblower like Pestaño to stand in the way of their fortunes.

The 10 officers charged by the Ombudsman with the murder of Pestaño may yet disclose the names of the others in the navy chain of command who were involved in the smuggling of illegal contraband and in the murders of Pestaño, Villanueva, Parone and Tagaytay.

“Some military men are killed in battle. They are given a hero’s burial,” Fr. Reuter wrote. “But Phillip died for a much deeper cause — he was trying to preserve the integrity of our Armed Forces. He died out of loyalty to the Philippines, in an effort to keep the oath that he made when he graduated from the Philippine Military Academy.”

There should be statues erected and streets renamed all over the Philippines to honor heroes like Pestaño, Villanueva, Parone and Tagaytay. They died for us.

(Send comments to [email protected] or send them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415. 334.7800).

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