MANILA — (UPDATE) The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has filed a murder complaint against 17 policemen allegedly involved in the "Bloody Sunday" killings of fisherfolk leaders in Nasugbu, Batangas last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Friday.
On March 7, the police and military implemented 24 search warrants in Calabarzon that left 9 activists dead and 4 others arrested.
Among those killed were spouses Chai Lemita-Evangelista and Ariel Evangelista in Batangas, after they allegedly fought back during the service of search warrants in their cottage in Nasugbu, Batangas.
But relatives and witnesses, including their 10-year-old son, said the couple was dragged to a nearby house where shots were fired soon after. They were then pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital.
Activist groups have questioned the killings and contested the issuance of the search warrant against the couple and 7 others who were also killed in simultaneous dawn raids in different parts of Calabarzon.
This is the second murder complaint against cops involved in the Bloody Sunday killings.
"Today, the NBI filed before the DOJ a complaint for murder against 17 officers and personnel associated with the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group Region IV-A who were involved in the service of warrants... that led to the untimely deaths [of the Evangelistas]" the press statement read.
The agency added that the move was based on the work of the AO 35 Special Investigation Team.
The AO 35 task force is an inter-agency panel intended to probe extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave human rights violations involving activists and rights defenders.
The DOJ will now conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if criminal charges can be filed in court.
As for the others killed during Bloody Sunday in March last year, the agency said the preliminary investigation into the killing of Bayan-Cavite Chapter local coordinator Emmanuel Asuncion will now be handled by their main office in Manila.
The AO 35 Special Investigation Team (SIT), the DOJ added, has been directed to file appropriate complaint regarding the death of Melvin Dagsinao, while the investigation for Mark Bacasno’s death continues.
Both are urban poor advocates killed in Rodriguez, Rizal on March 7, 2021.
"These cases represent the important ongoing collective work of the DOJ, NBI, and the AO 35 SITs which manifests the Philippine government's commitment to hold erring law enforcement officers and personnel to account for any excessive actions in the field," the statement read.
"These cases also represent an encouraging indication that the Philippine national internal accountability mechanisms are working."
The DOJ, though, has yet to release the names of the 17 cops.
Bayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes, Jr. welcomed the development.
In a statement, Reyes said this should serve as a warning to law enforcers not to allow themselves to be used for extrajudicial killings and weaponization of search warrants.
The murder complaint also came a few days after the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor announced that she and other experts, sought information from the Philippine government regarding the killings of 5 human rights defenders on Bloody Sunday but did not get a reply within 60 days.
Fisherfolk group Pamalakaya also refuted DOJ's claim regarding the country's internal accountability mechanism.
“It is an indication of a flawed judicial process that bears ‘death warrants’ against activists,” it said in a statement.
Karapatan, meanwhile, urged the AO 35 task force to also include in their probe the culpability of anti-insurgency body NTF-ELCAC and ex-PNP chief Debold Sinas who supposedly incited violence against organizations of slain human rights defenders.
They also asked that judges who issued the search warrants be made accountable.
The Philippines’ human rights situation is facing scrutiny from international bodies like the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council, primarily over the Philippine government’s drug war campaign.