Taguig detainees cry torture, but still fear for their lives

The Inbox

By Kenneth Roland A. Guda, VERA Files

Nails pierced his ears and temple. Cigarette butts burned through the skin of his shoulders, arms and legs. A long-nosed plier forced its way into his mouth and clipped his tongue.

Munap Saliddin was said to have endured this kind of torture while in the custody of soldiers from the Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade under Gen. Hermogenes Esperon in Basilan a decade ago.

Munap, along with his son Abdulmoner "Moner" Saliddin, was one of more than 500 individuals arrested on July 13, 2001 from various parts of Basilan. Most were released shortly after their arrest, but 73 persons, including the Saliddins, were jailed and later brought all the way to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, Rizal.

They were accused of participating in a series of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf bandit group from March 2000 to May 2001. Munap, Moner and many others once and currently detained in Taguig deny the charge.

Munap was eventually released in 2003.

"He was among the 16 (detainees from Basilan) whose cases we had dismissed because no witnesses identified them," said lawyer Pura Calleja, a member of the Free Legal Assistance Group and counsel of most of the so-called "Basilan 73" detainees.

But Moner remained in Camp Bagong Diwa. So did many other detainees, who continue to languish in jail. Their experiences of alleged torture still haunt them almost to this day, 10 years later.

According to Calleja, the 16 who were released in 2003 filed a complaint before the Department of Justice that same year on the torture they experienced.

The complaint was filed under RA 7438 or the law that guarantees the protection of rights of persons arrested and detained and outlines the duties of arresting officers.

But the DOJ dismissed the complaint, which included Esperon, on the basis that the victims can only be compensated if they were wrongly convicted of the crime they were charged with, in this case for kidnapping.

Because of this, the victims and their families opted to go back to Basilan. As for Calleja, who handled, pro-bono, almost all Basilan detainee cases, she was not able to file criminal or administrative case against the alleged torturers from the 103rd Brigade.

But one complication, said Calleja, was that many of the alleged torture victims still detained in Camp Bagong Diwa feared reprisal while within bars if they were to pursue the case against their torturers.

In November 2009, Congress passed Republic Act No. 7945, or the Anti-Torture Act. But this new law cannot be applied to the Basilan detainees because the tortures they supposedly endured happened 10 years ago.

"RA 7945 is a substantive law. It was passed by Congress to create rights. Therefore it is not retroactive," said lawyer Julius Matibag of the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL), who handles various cases of torture and human rights violations.

Matibag said, however, the detainees have some other legal remedies, like RA 7438, which also penalizes law enforcement officers such as members of the police or military who violate the rights of persons arrested, detained or under custodial investigation such as Moner and Munap.

Moner's brother Manar, one of the active campaigners in Basilan to free the Basilan 73, said he and the relatives of other detainees will look into the option to file a case against the alleged torturers, but only after all the detainees have been freed.

"We want to make a political statement, that we cannot be just taken from our homes and tortured like we were animals," he said. "But we need to be sure that my brother and the other detainees are safe from further harm."

Resolution of the Basilan 73 case, however, does not appear to be happening soon, according to Calleja.

Since the last court hearing was held in 2008, there has been a rigodon of judges and prosecutors handling the case. In 2003, the presiding judge in Pasig RTC Branch 163 was Judge Leili Suarez-Acebo. She was replaced by Judge Agnes Carpio who became associate justice of the Court of Appeals in October 2009.

As far as Calleja knows, "no judge is assigned to the case right now."

When Leila de Lima was appointed justice secretary, the DOJ assigned a new special team headed by Prosecutor Nestor Lazaro, but he asked for time to study the case.

"We have high hopes in Secretary De Lima," said Manar.

(This story is part of the VERA Files project "Human Rights Case Watch" supported by The Asia Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")