Wednesday, May 06, 2015

"You have fought the good fight"

Privilege Speech of Hon. Jose Christopher Y. Belmonte
Representative, District 6, Quezon City
27 October 2014

Honorable Speaker, I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege. I am here to express my grief and outrage over the death of my friend Arnold Borja Jaramillo who was killed in a so-called “encounter” between the New People’s Army and the 41st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.

My colleagues, AJ’s death struck me as a personal blow. He and I go way back, to our high school days in UP Baguio. I hesitated to lead my colleagues, it took me a while during the budget hearing but I feel it would be a dishonor to my friend if I do not speak up. When I recall those times, I am amazed at how far we have progressed from the teenagers we used to be, preoccupied with insecurities, bravado, ambitions, and yes, crushes on girls who always seemed to be outside our league. When I look now at the men we have become, I wonder at how our youthful idealism took divergent paths.

Even then, we thought of ourselves as the cream of the crop, the best students in the best high school in Baguio. We were fiercely competitive, and we strove to excel.

An alumnus who graduated four batches ahead of me chose the path of the law, and is now a sitting justice of the Supreme Court. Another who graduated a year ahead of me went to the Philippine Military Academy, and is now a superintendent at the Philippine National Police. Another schoolmate who was a batch behind AJ likewise went to the PMA and is now a full colonel in the Army. On my part, after many years outside the system, I now seek change by working within it, while AJ sought to effect change by working the margins, first in the student and people’s movements of our hometown of Baguio, then later in the hills and forests of Northern Luzon. Divergent, yes, but always with a shared goal. UP High School taught us to serve the people. And we were all so deeply influenced by the political ferment in those dying years of Martial Law.

It’s surprising how many milestones in a person’s life are marked by a piece of paper: A birth certificate when one is born; a diploma when one completes his studies; a marriage certificate when one marries; and, a death certificate when one dies.

AJ, who I am proud to call my friend, was born in 1966. He was 47 years old when he died, and it is not friendship which moves me to say that he is no ordinary Filipino, living a mundane life whose unremarkable details can be known in a handful of documents. He was a key student and mass leader, and was active in many causes. He was a charismatic leader and an eloquent public speaker. Much later, he joined the New People’s Army and eventually became a ranking member.

To say that he died would, in truth, be misleading. My friend AJ did not die. To say that a person died gives the impression that he was felled by the frailties of the human body, or by illness or simply by the passage of time. To say that someone died might suggest that he passed away surrounded by the love of his family and friends. My friend AJ did not die: I believe that he was murdered.

If he fell in battle fighting for his beliefs, I would have left it at that, with mixed emotions of sadness, envy, and pride in the gallant manner of his death. But all the evidence point to the contrary. Evidence show that he was killed in the most brutal fashion, gunned down in the most cowardly and treacherous manner.

The official reports say that AJ was killed in an alleged encounter with the 41st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in Guinguinabang, Lacub, Abra. He was not the only casualty: killed, too, were five of his comrades and two civilians who they claim were caught in the crossfire.

Thus, the end of AJ’s 47 years were summarized in a few telling paragraphs in an impersonal document, an autopsy report prepared by one Dr. Ronald R. Bandonill of the NBI-CAR. Said report is of such a nature as to convince his wife Cynthia that her husband was not killed simply in an encounter, but was in fact cold-bloodedly murdered. AJ’s body bore multiple gunshot wounds, and he also suffered multiple fractures in his limbs and jaws. The report details the wounds likely to have caused AJ’s death as follows:

“GUNSHOT WOUNDS: all modified by suturing and embalming.

1) ENTRANCE: 1.5 centimeters by 1.5 centimeters, oval in shape, edges inverted, with an area of burning of 0.5 centimeters, please note that area of burning all around the rim, located at the right posterior chestwall, just below the right scapula, 13.0 centimeters from the posterior midlineand etc. etc. etc...

2) MULTIPLE ENTRANCES: with an average size of 0.5 cm.x 0.5 cm., oval, edges inverted, located at the posterior surfaces of the left thigh and left lower leg, then EXITING; at the anterior surfaces of the right thigh, the right inguinal areas, and the left lower flank area.” Etc.etc. etc..

In a letter dated October 2, 2014, AJ’s wife Cynthia implored the help of Dr. Raquel del Rosario-Fortun, a forensic pathologist with the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, to determine the real cause of death of AJ.

Mr. Speaker, I have read many medico-legal and autopsy reports during the course of my legal practice, and have learned to treat these reports with clinical indifference and cold neutrality. But I have to confess to you, my colleagues, that nothing prepared me for AJ’s autopsy report. Reading such an impersonal document when it pertains to a friend’s brutal end is painful. Its unmistakable meaning is that AJ was shot repeatedly in the back, and one gunshot--likely the fatalshot--appears to have been fired at close range, as shown by the presence of powder burns, using a high-powered firearm. AJ’s body and his face, in particular, were so badly mangled, that the embalmer had to insert cement into his mouth to keep its architecture intact.

In criminal law, there are circumstances which aggravate the commission of a crime. One of these would be treachery. Treachery exists when the offender commits any of the crimes against the person, employing means, methods, or forms in the execution thereof which tend to directly and specially to insure its execution, without risk to himself arising from the defense which the offended party might make. In AJ’s case, he was shot multiple times in the back; the placement of the wounds suggest against a confrontation because otherwise, the bullets would have entered from the front and exited at AJ’s back. Likewise, the sheer number of shots fired at AJ belies the Army’s claim of an encounter as more shots seem to have been fired than was actually necessary.

Another aggravating circumstance that would accrue would be cruelty. It is when the wrong done in the commission of the crime is deliberately augmented by other wrongs not necessary for its commission. One cannot discount the possibility that AJ, pigeonholed as an enemy of the State, was deliberately shot multiple times, causing him untold pain and misery, until his suffering was ended with a coup de grace. AJ could have survived these non-fatal shots, but he had no chance with a single shot at close-range from a high-powered firearm. With that one shot, AJ was put to death like a dog, without the benefit of a fair trial that ended with the imposition of a non-existent death penalty.

The military, through the information chief of the 41st IB, said “the operation conducted was a legitimate operation with proper planning following the rules of engagement.”

Mr. Speaker, the autopsy reports on AJ and another casualty of that so-called “encounter” revealed otherwise. The autopsy report of Recca Noelle Monte, one of those reportedly slain in the said military operations, revealed that she had no gunshot wound and actually died of “blunt traumatic injuries, massive, head, face and chest.” Her skull resembled that of a “crushed egg.” She had hematoma and lacerations in the chest, and her left lower extremity shattered.

Mr. Speaker, my dear colleagues, just like what happened to my friend AJ and based on the autopsy report conducted by NBI-CAR, I firmly believe that Recca Noelle Monte was not killed-in-action; she was brutally and inhumanely murdered.

I am proud that I am part of this administration, I am proud that it is pursuing peace as shown by its commitment in pursuing the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. However, I believe that we cannot achieve genuine peace without pursuing justice. We need to pursue both.

I point out to you, Mr. Speaker, the concurring opinion of Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen in the recent case of Ocampo v. Abando, wherein the honorable Justice wrote:

“The rebel, in his or her effort to assert a better view of humanity, cannot negate himself or herself. Torture and summary execution of enemies or allies are never acts of courage. They demean those who sacrificed and those who gave their lives so that others may live justly and enjoy the blessings of more meaningful freedoms.

“Torture and summary execution — in any context — are shameful, naked brutal acts of those who may have simply been transformed into desperate cowards. Those who may have suffered or may have died because of these acts deserve better than to be told that they did so in the hands of a rebel.”

I say Mr. Speaker that the armed forces should be held to the same, if not to a higher level of conduct and morals in the field of battle in its war against insurgency.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas urges us: “Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Most people lead unremarkable lives that end in unremarkable deaths. Dying becomes meaningful when the process reveals the true character of the person. For AJ, he lived as he believed, and he died as he believed. He had the courage of his convictions. The words I speak are paltry in light of the tremendous esteem in which I hold AJ. To his wife Cynthia, his children Raia and Cholo, your grief is surely shared by AJ’s many friends whose lives have been touched by his grace and honor.

To my dear friend, you have fought the good fight. Though you did not deserve the fate you suffered, know that we who are still here will not forget the legacy of your sacrifice.

My dear colleagues, I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege. My friend was killed for his belief. My friend was killed in the most inhumane manner. My friend was killed in a manner contrary to the provisions under International Humanitarian Law. My friend was killed by those who took an oath to uphold our Constitution and our laws, and to protect the people.

The 41st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army claims that it was a valid operation, and that the rules of engagement were followed. But my friends, evidence points to the contrary.

Mr.Speaker, dear colleagues, AJ and I joined the student and people’s movements during the dark days of Martial Law. We have since taken different paths. He took the road less traveled by. More than three decades later, the remnants of the injustice that we fought against still linger.

Mr.Speaker, dear colleagues, I don’t have to remind you that just last week, we passed on second reading a joint resolution of Congress, we passed on the second reading and we are moving to pass to the third reading, a joint resolution of Congress to extend by six months the period for human rights victims during martial law to file their claims for recognition and compensation. Our commitment to seeing justice served to more than 70,000 victims of the atrocities committed during Martial Law is negated by these occurrences and puts to question our claims and our efforts to uphold human rights.

During this time that we are all focused on peace in Mindanao. . . During this time that we are all focused on promoting and protecting the rights of our people. .. During this time that we are all focused on ensuring that our people benefit from our country’s economic gains. . . This is unacceptable.

I call for an investigation, in aid of legislation, on the series of incidents which took place in Lacub, Abra. Lastly Mr. Speaker, I know that many of us here who have experienced war know that there are no winners in war, least of all the people who are its victims. Even the participants in war are affected and are damaged by war. Since we are in the process of peace, I push that we pull all our efforts for the resumption of the peace talks not only in Mindanao but across the nation, to all the parties including the NPA and the NDF. I call Mr. Speaker for peace.

Thank you very much Mr. Speaker, thank you very much dear colleagues.


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