Not a shootout, de Lima says of Quezon carnage-A A +A
Thursday, January 17, 2013
FIRST came an order for the passengers of the two SUVs to come out. When none came out, several armed law enforcers manning the checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon, as if on cue, moved away from the vehicles and waited for the next order: to fire.
A volley of shots then rained on the two subject vehicles for what seemed like forever so that there really was no chance for the 13 people inside to escape, much less survive the assault.
Faced with these circumstances, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima appeared to have also reached the same conclusion as other officials who spoke before her – the January 6 shooting incident at the checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon is no ordinary shootout.
"It was anything but a shootout. It's definitely not a shootout," de Lima told reporters at the site of the encounter during Thursday's re-enactment of the gruesome events by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the lead agency tasked by President Aquino to probe the killings for the possible filing of cases against those liable.
The re-enactment was based on the account of at least three eye witnesses who claimed to have seen for themselves how the policemen and soldiers at the checkpoint had used excessive force on the victims.
De Lima's observations also confirmed what the families of the victims already said, that what transpired was actually a "rubout."
"The witnesses saw the entire incident. These are very vital testimonies," she said. The witnesses whose names were withheld are now in the custody of the NBI and have been admitted into the government's witness protection program, she said.
"They are very credible," she added.
According to de Lima, the witnesses were on-board a truck, just behind the two vehicles carrying the 13 victims when they heard gunshots.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) chief said one witness claimed that there was actually no checkpoint designated in that area, and that the checkpoint signage was placed on the road only as the two SUVs approached. Under the police's protocol for checkpoints, the signage should have been placed prominently in the area.
De Lima, however, declined to label the incident as an "ambush" since the probers have not finished their investigation yet.
According to the witness, several armed men approached the two vehicles and ordered them to come out. However, when the order went unheeded, their leader shouted "fire." The operatives then promptly complied and fired at the SUVs believed to be boarding criminals engaged in a number of illegal activities, from gambling to illegal drugs to gun-running.
The supposed leader of the group was Superintendent Hansel Marantan, the intelligence chief of the Southern Tagalog police command, and was the lone person among operatives who got injured during the incident.
Marantan was also the one who had proposed to neutralize Case operation (coplan) Armado and had sought funding before the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC).
Witnesses further recalled that a lone military truck also blocked the path of the two SUVs bearing Siman and his group, which also included three soldiers, and three other policemen, including the slain Superintendent Alfredo Consemino.
Witnesses said that the first round of shots lasted for about 20-seconds. When the firing had ceased, two men from the second vehicle came out, identified as Tirso Lontoc, an environmentalist, who raised his arms but was still fired upon by armed men at close range. The other was Jimbeam Justiniano.
The witnesses' testimonies belied the claims of police and military operatives that the checkpoint signage was properly installed, as well as the photos of the scene of the crime that the police submitted to the NBI.
The photos showed the bodies of Lontoc and Justiniano were a few meters away from the vehicles, and indicated that they had traded shots with the law enforcers.
The PNP earlier claimed that operatives involved in the incident not only used excessive force but also tried to alter the evidence by planting or taking some of the guns on the victims after the carnage took place, to make it appear that a shootout ensued.
Meanwhile, De Lima confirmed that the NBI has summoned PAOCC executive director Chief Superintendent Reginald Villasanta before the bureau amid allegations that Malacañang, through the commission, approved the controversial coplan Armado.
Villasanta is expected to go to the NBI headquarters on Friday.
De Lima said Villasanta needs to clarify the content of the supposed PAOCC declaration, which allowed the joint military-police to carry out the operation in Atimonan.
"May confusion kasi whether the PAOCC declined the operation or only declined to fund the operation. Yan ang ilan sa mga tatanungin natin sa kanya," she said.
When asked if Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa will likewise be summoned, De Lima said that the presence of Ochoa before the NBI will not be needed anymore.
As this developed, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) is planning to check whether the group of Victor Siman, who is allegedly involved in illegal activities, paid the correct taxes on their small-scale mining business.
Siman was one of those killed in the incident.
In a briefing at the Department of Justice, BIR Commissioner Kim Henares said they will conduct an investigation since a certain Ronnie Habitan admitted that he is engaged in the business with Siman.
"I think the person who they alluded to that is involved in small scale mining did not deny he is into mining (Habitan). That's one thing that we have to look into," she said.
The probe will be conducted as soon as the NBI finishes its task of getting into the bottom of the incident, according to Henares. (JCV/Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)