MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — A Quezon City court has convicted National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultants Benito Tiamzon and wife Wilma Tiamzon of kidnapping and serious illegal detention over the abduction of a soldier in 1988.
QC Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 216 Judge Alfonso Ruiz II sentenced the Tiamzons to reclusion perpetua or up to 40 years in prison and ordered them to pay damages and civil indemnity amounting to P225,000 with interest.
The conviction stemmed from the abduction of Army Lt. Abraham Claro Casis with 2 other soldiers on the border between Tiaong and Candelaria towns, Quezon.
Casis testified that they were on their way to Manila on June 1, 1988 when members of the New People’s Army (NPA) stopped their vehicle. The rebels frisked them and tied them up before taking them by car and by boat to a detention center where they were held captive for 2 months.
They were released on Aug. 12, 1988 by Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal.
Casis said that while under detention, he saw the Tiamzon couple taking part in meetings and seemed to belong to “top officers” of the group which abducted them.
“Sila po iyong nakikita kong palaging nagpupulong doon at nagpapatakbo ng mga kautusan na sinasabi nilang dumadating sa kanila galing sa kanilang kataasan,” he told the court.
(I saw they were there during meetings, running the orders they were getting from the higher ups.)
The court relied solely on and gave “full faith and credit” to Casis’ testimony which it considered “straightforward, categorical and in accord with the natural course of things.”
It rejected the defense's claim that his testimony proceeded from an out-of-court identification based on photos shown to him, allegedly suggesting the involvement of the couple.
The court cited previous Supreme Court cases saying that the natural reaction of victims of criminal violence is to “strive to see the appearance of their assailants,” in justifying how Casis could be certain as to the identity of the Tiamzon couple.
The court also ruled there was conspiracy enough to convict the Tiamzons because although Casis only made a general statement that they were part of the group that kidnapped him, they found it was the NPA which was behind the abduction and the Tiamzons were identified as leaders of the group.
The Tiamzons were unable to present evidence because they failed to show up during trial. The court considered their right to present evidence waived.
The couple was arrested in Cebu in March 2014 then released in August 2016 on orders of President Rodrigo Duterte so they could take part in the peace talks in Oslo, Norway as representatives of the NDFP.
But negotiations were subsequently cancelled and the QC court ordered their arrest on August 29, 2018.
The whereabouts of the Tiamzons are still unknown to this day.
Malacañang welcomed the decision of the QC RTC, hailing the court's conviction as a "triumph of the justice system."
"We respect the decision of the Quezon City court... The long arm of the law has finally caught up with the Tiamzon couple," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
"It clearly shows that the wheels of justice continue to grind," Roque added.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, meanwhile, said he has yet to read the full ruling but also welcomed the development.
“It’s a victory for the prosecution, so as SOJ (Secretary of Justice), I am happy about the outcome of the trial,” he said in a message exchange with reporters.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, meanwhile, said the court's decision is a "positive development towards the elimination of all forms of criminality in the country."
"While the spouses may still avail of their remedial right to appeal their conviction before the higher courts, this decision is... through a fair and just trial, and under a thriving democracy and independent Judiciary," Panelo said.
The country remains democratic and is operating under the rule of law, he pointed out.
He also reminded the public that reforming the political structure should adhere to existing laws or they would be punished.
"The enemies of society and of the government who seek to undermine the integrity of the social order and of the nation's lawful institutions shall answer for their misdeeds," he said.
"Those who seek to reform the social and political structure must do so in accordance with existing laws. Otherwise, they shall be accountable and punished accordingly," he added.
The military, meanwhile, reiterated the couple's violation of the temporary liberty granted them "when they refused to surrender after the peace negotiations failed."
In a statement, Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the military spokesperson, said the Armed Forces would "continue to hunt them down where we know they are."
"They can run. But just as justice has caught up on them with this conviction, we will nab them soon," he said.
"By then, they will be back in jail to pay for the crimes they committed against our people through the many atrocities perpetrated by the NPA which acts they planned and orchestrated," he added.
But National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers president Edre Olalia and Wilma Tiamzon’s lawyers denounced the conviction, describing it as a "politically motivated persecution."
The kidnapping incident happened in 1988 and a case was filed in 1990 but it was archived and reactivated in 2003.
Olaloa said the identification of the Tiamzons after 30 years is “dubious.”
He also challenged the crime charged, saying rebellion should have been filed instead of kidnapping and serious illegal detention because of the political offense doctrine, which absorbs common crimes such as kidnapping under the crime of rebellion.
Under international humanitarian law, the circumstance could not be considered kidnapping but an “act of war” in taking custody of a combatant, he added.
The couple, he said, as part of the negotiating panel, are covered by Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), a 1995 document which exempts them from arrest and prosecution.
JASIG was terminated in Feb. 2017 following the collapse of the peace talks.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) slammed the decision, calling it an "unjust conviction."
The CPP added that the charges against the peace consultants were "railroaded," even if it happened 30 years ago.
"That the case was pursued by DOJ show bad faith on part of [the government of the Republic of the Philippines.] Walang palabra de honor (There was no word of honor.)" the statement read.
The CPP agreed with NUPL that the conviction is a violation of JASIG.
"Disarming and detention of Army personnel as prisoners-of-war are legitimate and humane acts of war. They were released without ransom contrary to criminal act of kidnapping."
TIAMZONS FACING 'TRUMPED UP' CHARGES, FEARS FOR THEIR LIVES
Lawyer Rachel Pastores, the couple's legal counsel, said the charges against them were "trumped up."
The peace consultants have been subjected to surveillance and harassments on top of death threats, reasons why they were not able to defend themselves in court, Pastores added.
"They could have easily presented evidence in their defense and dispute the clear lies of the lone prosecution witness, a high ranking member of the military," she said in a statement.
She also blasted the "self-serving and biased" statements of the only witness in the crime, which was used by the court as basis to charge the Tiamzons.
"This case, which has more than 100 accused, has been dismissed against many others... Given the present factual milieu, the Tiamzons, along with other peace consultants facing false charges in court, cannot avail of fair trial," she explained.
Prior to the date of promulgation, she said, the couple already filed a manifestation in court regarding several serious death threats.
"This was illustrated in particular in the murders of Randall Echanis and Randy Malayao, both in tragic circumstances."
The Commission on Human Rights earlier said that Echanis was "tortured to death," based on their autopsy.
Echanis’ body was found in his home early in the morning of Aug. 10, after a witness allegedly heard “loud noises” coming from Echanis’ second floor house. Another man identified as a neighbor was also found dead.
Olalia, meanwhile, warned that the conviction of the Tiamzons "closes doors and windows to peaceful settlement or talks" with the Philippine government.