A Killing Too Far: Rebelyn Pitao

By KEITH BACONGCO, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

Posted at Mar 16 2009 12:33 PM | Updated as of Mar 16 2009 08:33 PM

DAVAO CITY – Rebelyn was wearing her white school teacher’s uniform when she left home to go to work. “Ma, lakaw na ko (Ma, I have to go now),” she called out to her mother Evangeline.

It was 6:30 a.m. – the last time Mrs. Pitao saw her 20-year old daughter. It was the last time she ever heard her voice.

Rebelyn usually arrived back home by 6:30 p.m. each school day. But last week, Wednesday March 4, there was no sign of her. Mrs. Pitao was worried: An hour and a half later, local police officers and a tricycle driver knocked on her door and brought news that Rebelyn had been abducted on her way home by armed gunmen.

“When I heard she had been taken, I knew I would never see her alive again,” said Mrs. Pitao from her small house in Bago Galera, Toril District in Davao City. “I knew they would kill her because they were angry at her father.”

Rebelyn, who would have turned 21 on March 20, was the third child and daughter of New People’s Army (NPA) leader Leoncio Pitao, also known as Commander Parago. Her partially-naked body was found late the following day, Thursday March 5, in an irrigation ditch in Barangay (village) San Isidro in Carmen, Davao Del Norte, about 50 kilometers north from here. She had been bound, gagged, raped and repeatedly stabbed in the chest.

“There were rope markings around her neck and mud all over her body,” her mother told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. “She was like a carabao.”

According to the Scene of Crime Operatives (SOCO) of the Davao City police, Rebelyn had been dead for more than 20 hours before she was found by a local farmer. It suggests she was killed very soon after being taken.

“Her body bore five wounds inflicted by a thin sharp object such as an ice pick, which pierced her lungs and liver,” according to Dr. Tomas Dimaandal who conducted the autopsy at a local funeral home. His report added that her genitals had suffered cuts “possibly caused by a hard object.” Her mouth had been taped up.

Mrs. Pitao explained how, with the police officers listening, tricycle driver Danny Peliciano told her that two unknown men had boarded his vehicle alongside Rebelyn when she climbed in to ride home. As they neared Bago Gallera de Oro subdivision a white van – a Toyota Revo – blocked their path and forced the tricycle to stop.

“Two other men came out of the van and dragged her out of the tricycle. The driver said Rebelyn was screaming for help but he could not do anything because the men were armed. The driver said he ran away. Then they dragged my daughter inside the van.”

Mrs. Pitao believes the other two men on the tricycle were accomplices and all four men climbed in the van.

The abduction site is about 300 meters from the national highway and is beside a church with the nearest house 50 meters away.

Peliciano is now missing: A fellow driver who did not wish to be named said that right after the incident he quit working his usual route and disappeared. “He is no longer staying at home and we have no idea where he is now. I think he went into hiding because he is a witness,” said the man.

Mrs. Pitao believes her daughter may have been attacked inside the van or taken to a place in nearby Panabo City or Carmen where she was tied up, tortured and killed soon after and then taken after dark to the ditch.

It is believed she was dumped there between midnight and 1 a.m.

According to a police report obtained by the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project from the Carmen police station, Rebelyn’s body was discovered by rice farmer Raffy Agres whose signed affidavit says he found her lying in the flooded ditch at around 5 p.m. that Thursday.

“You could hardly see the body even when you were just beside the canal because of the grass here and the ridge,” said banana plantation worker Noel Lanoy who was with Agres when Rebelyn was found.

“He screamed out that a body had been dumped and it was a summary killing,” said Lanoy. “I first thought it was a banana tree trunk.”

Egles Brieta whose house lies about 100 meters away from the scene, says she didn’t see or hear any vehicle that would have been needed to dump Rebelyn’s body. “It is so quiet here, yet we didn’t hear anything or anybody.”

A makeshift bamboo cross now stands in the knee-deep water where Rebelyn was found. According to Brieta, the bodies of two men were also found dumped here in 2004.

Outrage and denials

The abduction, torture and killing of Rebelyn have been met with widespread disgust and condemnation alongside public pledges to deliver justice and ensure an open, independent and transparent investigation.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ordered government agencies to conduct a thorough investigation, and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has called the abduction, torture and murder “a deed most foul and the work of a monster.”

A senior military officer has called it “a crime against humanity,” with Senator Richard Gordon calling it a “war crime.”

So far however, Task Force Rebelyn, the group set up to investigate the crime claims it has few real leads. Davao City Police Chief Senior Superintendent Ramon Apolinario initially complained his men had only a few clues to work with – the testimonies of the tricycle driver and the rice farmer who found her –along with a description of the van allegedly used.

Rebelyn’s guerilla father claims the vehicle has been spotted parked outside a “known army safe house in Carmen” –something the military hotly denies.

Almost from the very moment she was reported missing, the Philippine Army’s high command has come out vehemently and repeatedly in public to deny the military was in any way responsible for Rebelyn’s abduction or her subsequent torture and killing.

But after her own father –Commander Parago – publicly named four military suspects as his daughter’s killers on Sunday, the Army’s position has slowly changed. While it still denies any responsibility, it now admits two of the men Parago mentioned are currently their military intelligence officers who are now “restricted” to the barracks at the 10th Infantry Division headquarters in Camp Panacan in Davao.

The military is now pledging 100 per cent cooperation with the police inquiry but insists the investigation also has to follow up all other leads too.

A few days earlier, Major General Reynaldo B. Mapagu, Commander of the 10th ID, denied any involvement of the military in the killing of Rebelyn, adding that it was “not the policy of the Philippine Army to target civilians in its campaign against the communist insurgents.”

And in a separate press statement, Lt. Colonel Rolando Bautista, 10th ID spokesperson, said they understand the ordeal of the family of Rebelyn “but it would be unfair to blame the incident (on) the military.”

In the hours after she first went missing, military sources suggested Rebelyn was probably the victim of infighting between members of the NPA. They added that she may also have been targeted by relatives of people who were themselves kidnapped and abused by Parago over the years.

But Rebelyn’s father is adamant that no other group could be behind her killing and claims the army “lashed out at her because they couldn’t get me.”

He does not believe that any government-led investigation will bring justice for her daughter.

“There were so many investigations for the victims of extrajudicial killings but none so far have been solved,” he said. “Not just political killings but also killing of journalists in this country -what happened to their investigations?”

Ominously, he added: “We (the NPA) will be the ones to investigate and punish those behind the killing of my daughter.”

Prepared with sacrifices

Chief of the NPA’s 1st Pulang Bagani Command which operates in the fringes of this huge city, Parago said the killing of his daughter would “strengthen and intensify the efforts to continue the revolution.

“I’m hurt and I’m enraged. Yet even if I cry, there’s nothing I could do to bring her back. When I learned that she was abducted, I already knew that were going to kill her. I’ve been expecting that to happen not just to my daughter but to my entire family as well.”

Parago’s son Ryan claims he too was attacked by military agents and now lives with his father as an NPA guerilla. “They tried to stab me in 2005 and the next day I left to come here. Had I not, I would have been dead now just like Rebelyn.”

Parago broke his silence three days after her daughter was found dead. The Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project and several journalists met up with him at a location in the outskirts of this city.

“Since I joined the NPA (in 1978), I’ve been expecting that something will happen to my family,” he said. “You have to be prepared with all the sacrifices in all aspects when you’ll join the revolution.”

Clad in black military uniform, smoking a cigarette and in full battle dress, the 51-year-old Parago worried that what happened to Rebelyn may also happen to other members of his family. “There is a big possibility that they will do my family harm because they could hardly capture me.”

Parago accused two named sergeants with the Military Intelligence Group (MIG) and two named officers serving in the Military Intelligence Battalion (MIB) as those who he says are directly responsible for his daughter’s death. In a separate interview with a radio station he also named others –including an Army major.

Parago said that based on the NPA’s “own intelligence information,” the four intelligence officers were responsible for the killing of his brother Danilo in June last year alongside others. “My brother was a provincial guard of Davao del Norte -he was a government employee, and yet still he was killed.”

A spokesperson of the Army’s 10th ID has confirmed the names Parago mentioned to the journalists are members of the military. Two of them he confirmed are being held in the divisional barracks. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Eastern Mindanao Command spokesperson Major Randolph Cabangbang said the military would fully cooperate with the police investigation.

“We are also affected; the military organization is very concerned about this and by the perception of civilians. We are not looking into this incident as soldiers but as fathers too,” stressed Cabangbang.

He added they were also investigating the white Toyota Revo with the plate number LPG-588 that was reportedly used in abducting Rebelyn. “We verified the plate number to the Land of Transportation office,” he said – “but apparently it is not registered or found in the LTO’s database.”

Cabangbang was adamant there “would be no whitewash or cover-up” in the investigation “even if the suspects are from the military.”

He added: “We will give the PNP (Philippine National Police) a free hand on this. We also welcome an independent body to conduct its own investigation to help bring justice for Rebelyn. This incident is already beyond the fighting between the AFP and the NPA, this is already an attack against humanity.”

He flatly denied the military conducted surveillance on the Pitao family: “The only subject for our surveillance is Parago - not his entire family”

Elusive Parago

Parago has long been a wanted man: Former commander of the Philippine Army's 10th ID Major General Jogy Leo Fojas last year vowed his troops would “nail the elusive Parago” before the end of 2008.

Parago has been accused of kidnapping and killing civilians, whom the NPA suspected as “military intelligence assets.” He admits his guerillas have killed suspected informers in cold blood: Parago claimed he knew his “comrades” were responsible for the killing of an informer, but was “not around when the execution happened.”

”The People’s Court does not kill innocent civilians, we carefully examine their crimes against the people before we carry out punishments,” he said.

Yet there is no such recognized court under national or international law and many people see absolutely no difference between extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by the military and those said to be committed by the NPA.

In January 7, the NPA are believed to have killed Saturnino Rizaldo, a suspected member of the military intelligence group. A month later, they also reportedly murdered a second intelligence agent in Paquibato district here.

In a mobile phone interview, Simon Santiago, southern Mindanao political director of the NPA, told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project that the NPA executed Rizaldo because of his “crime against humanity.”

“The NPA has standing order against those who have committed serious crime against the masses,” Santiago stressed.

The other victim he said was “a former NPA member turned military asset.”

Remembering Rebelyn

Parago said he waited until his daughter was 11 before telling her he was the known Commander Parago of Southern Mindanao. “When they (my children) asked me where I was, I often told them I was working abroad.”

Shortly after his release from a prison sentence in 2000 and learning that he would again go back to join the NPA, Parago recalled Rebelyn saying: “Pa, abi nako mag uban na ta hangtud sa hangtud (Pa, I thought we would be together again forever).”

Parago was captured by military agents in 1999 at his home in Toril district. He was released without preconditions after spending just under two years in jail.

He also recounted the time when Rebelyn asked for a new pair of jeans and he couldn’t give her one. “I told her to ask for the old pair of jeans from her older sister. Rebelyn did it and did not complain. When her mother was finally able to give her a new pair, Rebelyn was so happy and grateful. Even for the smallest things, Rebelyn never forgot to say ‘thank you.’ ”

Mrs. Pitao also recalled that since Rebelyn was still small, she really wanted to be a teacher. “Since she was small, that was her dream -and she really fulfilled her dream,” she said.

Rebelyn served as a substitute teacher for five months at St. Peter’s College of Technology and taught Grade 2.

Her mother recalled how happy Rebelyn was when she had her first salary of PhP 7,800 (USD 162). “She was so happy because that was her first time that she actually had some real money.”

Mrs. Pitao added said that her daughter’s fellow teachers were surprised to learn she was the daughter of Commander Parago. “Yet their treatment towards us never changed. They even sympathized with us because they knew we were not part of the conflict -we were not combatants.”

Held hostage

Mrs. Pitao claimed the military had harassed their family in the past. In 1999, she insisted, seven military agents came into their house and briefly held the family hostage to force her husband to surrender.

“They knew my husband was coming down to visit us because it was All Saints Day,” she recalls. “The children were so scared because we were all held at gunpoint.”

Parago also claims to remember the alleged incident: “I went there to visit but was surprised to see the military. I had a grenade with me but had I tossed it inside my house it would have killed my family as well as the agents –and so I let myself get captured.”

Mrs. Pitao said the incident was a traumatic experience for the children: “Trauma has been gone for a long time but now it’s back again because of what happened to their sister.”

Safety of the family

Davao City Police have been providing 24-hour security during Rebelyn’s wake and Mrs. Pitao said she was thankful to Mayor Duterte. While having gone on record as saying he dismissed all allegations that any military or police officers could be involved in the killing, the mayor has made a public promise to Parago to find those responsible. The two have even spoken together on the phone.

For her part, Mrs. Pitao is refusing to comment on her family’s future security: “We cannot say anything about it now or what are we going to do now. We have yet to talk about it. But I admit that we are very affected. I’m worried about my children because two of them are still studying and they are now worried for their security.”

Rebelyn’s death brings the number of victims of extrajudicial killings in southern Mindanao since 2001 up to 93 according to Kelly Delgado, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan for southern Mindanao region.

Authorities contest Karapatan’s figure and insist it is much lower. But it is not known if either figure includes an anti-mining activist who was shot dead by two gunmen on Monday March 9 in nearby Koronadal City.

Delgado claims the killing of Rebelyn was intended as a warning: “This is a message for the family members of not just the NPA but as well those who are in the progressive organizations that they too can be targets,” Delgado said. “It is also a message meant to demoralize our ranks.”

“Since the government has set 2010 as the deadline to crush the communist movement, extrajudicial killings may even get worse because civilians whom they suspect as communist supporters will become soft targets,” Delgado said.

“The killings have become systemic and it is impossible to stop them. What we can do now is to become vigilant and impose security measures among people.”

Retired Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have set a 2010 deadline to end the insurgency.

But last year, Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Alexander Yano admitted that the government might not be able to wipe out the 40-year-old communist movement by 2010.
The NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), turns 40 on March 29 –the day before a public hearing on vigilante killings is due to open here.

Bishop Delfin Callao of the Philippine Independent Church has said that an independent body needs to be created to investigate Rebelyn’s killing.

“How can you investigate if you are the accused?” Callao asked reporters in a press conference last week. The investigation, he insisted, should not allow any representatives from government agencies, police or military to join.

"This will assure us of complete impartiality and the findings can be the basis of any criminal charges to be filed against the suspects.”
The investigating body, he said, should be composed of the people from church and civil society organizations. “Even if the government authorities snub the results, the most important thing here is we surface the truth.”

Rebelyn’s funeral and burial is due to be held here on Saturday March 14. Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

(The author is a journalist based in Davao City and one of the founders of AKP Images, an independent photo agency.)