MANILA, Philippines - A forensic pathologist on Friday said she has misgivings over a Department of Justice-National Bureau of Investigation fact-finding report that absolved the military from the killing of top botanist Leonardo Co and 2 others last November.
Speaking to ANC, forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun said the release of the DOJ-NBI report was premature since more facts about the incident are still coming in.
Fortun, who autopsied the bodies of Co, forest guard Sofronio Cortez and farmer Julius Borromeo, said she disagreed with the panel's findings that New People's Army (NPA) rebels shot the victims.
The panel based its findings on the supposed trajectory of the bullets that killed Co, et al and because the bullets did not match any of the guns submitted by the military for examination.
"I disagree with that conclusion...I think they simply accepted what the military is saying, that they were at the ridge but I am not sure if that is a fact because from what I know is - the military were not really stationary, that is the word they used, at the ridge," she told ANC's "Dateline Philippines."
"I have misgivings about the conclusions that they arrived at. I do not agree. [The military] were not stationary and they moved down," she added.
Co, Cortez and Borromeo, were conducting research work for the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) last November 15 in Upper Mahiao, Lim-ao, Kananga Leyte when they were allegedly caught in the crossfire between an Army patrol and New People's Army (NPA) guerrillas.
In a 26-page recommendation submitted to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, government prosecutors said the bullets that killed Co and his 2 companions could not have come from the side of the military.
Backing the military's claim that a crossfire occurred, the fact-finding panel said the bullets that killed Co, Cortez and Borromeo came from the lower area where alleged communist rebels were positioned.
It noted that the ballistic examination conducted on the slugs recovered from the bodies of the victims yielded negative results from any of the firearms submitted by the members of the Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion, who operate in the area.
Were their really rebels?
Fortun, meanwhile, said the report failed to establish if there were NPA rebels in the area as claimed by the military. She noted that 2 of the survivors already said they did not see communist rebels at the time of the shooting.
"It's a fact that the military were there and they fired weapons. It's a fact that 5 people were there, 3 dead and 2 survivors. The question is - was there a third group present, the NPA? You have to establish their actual presence. Kung absent yung indication that they were there, parang it's kind of premature to come up with something definitive at this point," she said.
She also found implausible the panel's conclusion that the military did not hit the 3 victims despite firing more than 200 rounds in the area.
"That's a lot. That's spraying the area. I also don't buy the argument that they could not have killed the 3 because of the thick foliage and all and they were too far. With so many rounds fired, pwedeng pwede mo silang tamaan even at the ridge," she said.
She said that because of the thick foliage in the area, it would be impossible to get the casings of all the bullets fired during the supposed encounter.
Fortun said one question in her mind is whether the military really submitted the weapons used by the 19th Infantry Batallion in the incident.
CHR to pursue own probe
The Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, said it will pursue its own inquiry into the killing of Co and two companions in Leyte last November despite the conclusion of an investigation conducted by the Department of Justice.
CHR chairwoman Loretta Rosales said they will push through with a public inquiry on the incident on January 26-27 in Tacloban City.
At present, Rosales said they are collating the investigation reports from the NBI, from where the DOJ findings was principally based, and the results of probe conducted by the military’s board of inquiry, which incidentally also cleared the soldiers.
“We are gathering all the reports and we’re going to have our public inquiry on the 26th and 27th in Tacloban so I can talk to the soldiers who were involved in the shooting. We want to get their statements, all their statements,” said Rosales, adding the inquiry will be open to media.
Rosales said that as far as the CHR is concerned, the military is still not off the hook. She said she is still not “totally convinced” that the military is clear in the killing, pending the result of the probe that the CHR is conducting.
She noted the statement of one of the survivors who narrated that the bullets that hit them came from the direction of the soldiers “but as I said, I am not concluding that there was no crossfire. We are still trying to find out whether number one, there was crossfire."
Rosales said the CHR probe will be based on both testimonial and material evidence. “Our position is we have to exhaust all data before we can up with a conclusion so that our conclusion will be credible and will be anchored on appreciation of all facts gathered and all reports made to the CHR,” she said.