CPP denounces coverup of Philippine Army responsibility in botanist’s killing

By CPP Information Bureau

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) today denounced the findings of the fact-finding team of the Department of Justice (DOJ), calling it a "grand coverup” and “distortion of facts” meant to exculpate the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion (19th IB) of their responsibility in the killing of botanist Leonardo Co and two companions last November in Leyte.

Professor Co was an eminent plant taxonomist and botanist who was under contract with the Energy Development Corporation (EDC). Last November 15, Co and his companions were collecting tree samples in the forested area of Kananga, Leyte when they were fired upon. Co, forest guard Sofronio Cortez and farmer Julius Borromeo were killed in a hail of gunfire, while their two other companions, forester Ronino Gibe and their guide Policarpio Balute, survived. Balute was able to run away even before the firing ended. Gibe was the only one left unscathed.

The AFP insists that Co and his companions were killed in the crossfire when they engaged an armed group in the immediate area. It insists that their troops were conducting military operations in the area, based on supposed information that a New People's Army unit was about to carry out an attack against the EDC. The EDC, however, was unaware of any such information, and in fact closely coordinated with the 19th IB regarding the field work of Co’s team in the forest area.

"The conclusions of the DOJ fact-finding team are completely incongruent with the facts and were drawn only to fit the ‘crossfire’ storyline of the AFP," said the CPP. "The facts cited by the team proving that the AFP had no responsibility in the killing will not stand even to basic scientific scrutiny."

The CPP described as "fantastically convoluted" how the DOJ team concluded that the 19th IB was indeed conducting pursuit operations based solely on the statement by Gibe, that after the hail of gunfire, the government soldiers immediately approached him and asked for his "armed companions." Gibe said that when they approached him, the government soldiers said they were looking around for “three armed men” who they had observed to have been “walking around for 30 minutes.”

"Contrary to the fantastically convoluted reasoning and conclusion of the DOJ team, one can only draw from Gibe's affidavit the conclusion that Co and his team were, in fact, the targets of the 19th IB, which mistook them for being an armed group because their survey and other long equipment looked like firearms when seen from a distance," said the CPP.

The CPP noted that the government soldiers, who interrogated and even taunted Gibe, lingered in the area, and were not at all apprehensive that armed NPA forces were supposedly just around, as they claimed.

Gibe and another witness, farmer Policarpio Balute who served as their guide, insisted in their sworn affidavits that they did not hear any exchange of gunfire. "There could not have been any exchange of gunfire, because no firefight ever took place that day in Kananga," added the CPP.

"It is, thus, unfathomable how the DOJ team came to the conclusion that Co and company were killed not by the AFP soldiers, but by the NPA," said the CPP. The CPP questioned the ballistic exams which supposedly found no match between the bullets recovered from the bodies and the firearms submitted by the Philippine Army.

"In the first place, only nine firearms were submitted for examination," pointed out the CPP. "The actual firearms used during the operation could easily have been hidden by the officials of the 19th IB."

"The entire arsenal of the 19th IB should have been surrendered for examination. Otherwise, one cannot draw anything conclusive from such utterly faulty ballistic examination."

"It is incredible how the DOJ team concluded that the bullets that killed Co and his companions could not have come from the government soldiers who were positioned at a higher position, but rather from a lower position,"  said the CPP. "The DOJ team conveniently ignored the physical evidence at the site where bullet marks left on trees show that the trajectory of fire came mostly from a higher position and were concentrated on the area where the Co group was stationed showing they were in fact the targets of the gunfire."

“The DOJ team ignored Gibe’s testimony that only when Co raised his hand and cried ‘Tama na! Tama na!’ that the firing stopped and the government soldiers at once approached and interrogated them.

The CPP challenged Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to reject the findings of the DOJ team and initiate a more honest investigation and review.

The CPP had earlier proposed the formation of an impartial third-party fact-finding body to look into the incident. The CPP said such a body can be constituted under the auspices of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) which includes representatives of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

The JMC was formed to oversee the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CAHRIHL) and receive complaints of violations.