Soldiers liable for death of botanist Leonard Co

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 18 2012 07:23 PM | Updated as of Dec 19 2012 04:15 AM

MANILA – The Philippines' official human rights commission called Tuesday for criminal charges against eight soldiers and their two commanders for the killing of a respected botanist and his two aides.

The recommendation by the Commission on Human Rights comes as President Benigno Aquino attempts to show that his government is serious about cracking down on rights abuses that have afflicted the country for decades.

The commission said in a statement that the November 2010 killing of botanist Leonard Co and his two assistants was due to the military's failure to distinguish civilians from combatants.

It also cited alleged attempts to hide the crime by the soldiers and their battalion commander.

"This was a tragedy that should not have happened if the (military) had been more diligent in observing international humanitarian law in protecting the lives and safety of civilians," the statement said.

Co and his two assistants were killed while working on a reforestation project in the central island of Leyte in what the military initially claimed was crossfire during a clash with communist rebels.

But the commission's investigators later concluded there had been no firefight and that Co and his aides were killed when the soldiers mistook them for insurgents.

"There was a failure to distinguish civilians from alleged combatants. There was a failure to provide prompt medical attention to the wounded victim... who died as a result," the statement said.

The commission also sought charges against the battalion commander of the unit involved for failing to submit all the firearms used for testing.

Its recommendations have been sent to the Justice Department which will determine what charges will be filed.

Aquino, the son of two pro-democracy heroes, was elected president in 2010 with a promise to curb rights abuses, particularly the "culture of impunity" under which powerful men believe they can get away with abuses.

But the government, battling communist rebels, Muslim separatists and extremists linked to Al-Qaeda, remains dogged by complaints of abuses in its counter-insurgency campaigns.

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