MANILA (UPDATED) – Various groups on Tuesday called for an investigation into the killing of peace consultant and peasant leader Randall Echanis in Quezon City, as well as the “snatching” of his remains at a funeral home by police officers.
Police initially claimed Echanis, 72 and Louie Tagapia, 48, were stabbed to death by 5 unidentified individuals inside a rented house in Novaliches, Quezon City past 1 a.m. Monday.
But Echanis’ death certificate shows gunshot wounds in the head were the main cause of his death.
Amnesty International Philippines said in a statement Tuesday that authorities should investigate the “cold-blooded murder” of Echanis, while the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) asked Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to direct the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to lead the probe.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines has written United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about Echanis’ killing, asking for condemnation from her office and the UN Security Council.
It also sought action from members of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution recommending independent investigations into killings in the country.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and Anakpawis party-list blamed police and state forces for the killing while ICHRP attributed it to President Rodrigo Duterte’s counter-insurgency campaign, “Oplan Kapanatagan,” claiming the killing was a “calibrated operation” designed to end peace dialogues between the government and rebel groups.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Tuesday that authorities should first finish the investigation into the death of Echanis before anyone points a finger over the killing
"Antayin po natin ang imbestigasyon ng pulisya diyan ‘no. Ito naman po ay kaso ng murder o homicide at iniimbestigahan po iyan ng ating kapulisan," he said.
A key point in the investigation is the circumstances surrounding Echanis’ and Tagapia’s death. Former Anakpawis party-list Rep. Ariel Casilao claimed Echanis was unarmed and was receiving medical attention.
“From all indications, Mr. Echanis and Mr. Tagapia were, at the time of their killing, peacefully inside a private dwelling and were not engaged in any acts that would even remotely justify the use of armed force by the authorities, their agents, or cohorts,” FLAG said.
CONFUSION OVER IDENTITY
Police late Monday denied it was Echanis who was killed based on an identity card showing a different name, despite Echanis’ own wife identifying his remains.
On this basis, cops retrieved Echanis’ body from grieving relatives even if it had already been released by a funeral home and a PNP physician.
On Twitter, Anakpawis posted a side-by-side photo of the cadaver, with bruises on the left eye and another part of the face, with that of Echanis when he was still alive to show the resemblance.
FLAG called the “snatching” a cruel, inhuman and degrading act without any legal or moral justification, while National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) president Edre Olalia called the act “criminal.”
“Plots like these are hatched only in hell,” Olalia said in a statement.
“Tahasang pambabalahura na ito sa patay. Ni katiting na respeto hindi nila maibigay sa mga pinatay nila at sa mga kapamilya at kasamahan nito,” Kilusang Mayo Uno, for its part, said, accusing Metro Manila police chief Debold Sinas of being behind the “stealing.”
Sinas has yet to respond to a request for comment.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed "deep concern" on the alleged snatching incident, with agency spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia saying that the issue has become "a matter of respect for human dignity and speaks of the kind of society that we mold."
De Guia said the CHR already launched an investigation, and "whoever is responsible for these indignities" should be held accountable.
Sentra executive director Jobert Pahilga, who is the legal counsel of the Echanis family, also slammed the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) for arresting their paralegal Paolo Colabres for alleged obstruction of justice.
He said Colabres was at the funeral parlor to check on Echanis' remains "to see to it that they do not do anything to the body of Ka Randy!"
"Paolo is now detained at Camp Karingal, inside a cramped cell with several inmates. God forbid that he contacts Covid19 as there were reports that inmates in several jails are Covid19 positive," he said.
Pahilga also refuted claims their lawyer Luz Perez, whom police said eluded arrest, did not cooperate with authorities.
He said Perez was in talks with Criminal Investigation and Detention Unit (CIDU) and Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) for the release of Echanis' remains.
"So please, QCPD stop the lies! Atty. Perez would not risk her license as a lawyer to go to the funeral parlor, claim a dead body, if she is not sure that the dead body is of Ka Randy," Pahilga said.
AO 35 TASK FORCE
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday has directed the AO 35 task force on extrajudicial killings to form a special investigating team to look into the killing, “upon the assumption that the subject was indeed peasant leader Echanis."
“I will refer the question of identity re[garding] Echanis to the NBI forensic investigation division,” he said.
“It is necessary to confirm the identity of the victim before the task force on EJK starts its investigation of the incident. AO 35 covers the summary killings of persons on account of their advocacies, such as labor and peasant leaders, but not common crimes involving ordinary persons,” he added.
Formed in 2012, the AO 35 Task Force was intended to prosecute politically-motivated killings, said Justice spokesperson Markk Perete.
Headed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), its members include the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Amid questions surrounding the PNP’s involvement in the killing, FLAG has called for the NBI to conduct the probe and for the PNP to turn over its investigation, cooperate with NBI, return the remains and release the paralegal who was arrested without a warrant when police seized Echanis’ remains.
It also asked for an independent forensic pathologist to perform autopsies on the bodies of Echanis and Tagapia.
If it turns out the victim is Echanis and circumstances indicate an EJK case, Guevarra said the AO 35 task force would be the primary investigator and the NBI could assist, if necessary. But the justice department is not ruling out yet the PNP’s involvement in the AO 35 probe.
“Prosecutors lead a composite team of investigators. The composition of the team varies depending on the circumstances of the case. It may include PNP officers or NBI investigators or both,” Perete said.
“We’ll determine this as more facts come to the fore. We do not wish to make any prejudgment as to the possible perpetrators at this time,” Guevarra said, noting that the DOJ can’t prevent the PNP from investigating on their own.
The justice chief, however, said “the police should explain why it was necessary to transfer the body from one funeral parlor to another.”
Echanis, a long-time consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), was also the deputy secretary-general of the KMP and chair of Anakpawis.
His death, according to Amnesty International Philippines, adds to the “intensifying attacks against political activists in the country,” citing the killing of another consultant Randy Malayao who was gunned down while inside a bus in Nueva Vizcaya in January 2019.