Hostage-taker Jun Ducat
By DAVID DIZON
A bearded yet unbowed Armando "Jun" Ducat Jr. has lost none of his gumption a full year after grabbing international attention when he took hostage 26 preschool children and three teachers inside a bus right across Manila City Hall.
Ducat, who was jailed and charged with illegal detention and child abuse due to the incident, says he has no plans of spending his life behind bars. Now 57, he has taken on a new crusade -- the right of prisoners to a fair and speedy trial after noting the delays to his own case.
Ducat said he has been to court a total of 14 times since last year after being sued by the police and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
"In those 14 court dates, eight were delayed. The judge was even late in some of the court dates but refused to extend the hearings. They have 36 witnesses against me but only four have testified so far. The way my trial is going, I could be in jail for another 10 years," he told abs-cbnNEWS.com in an interview in Manila City jail.
"I'm considered lucky because I go to court at least once a month but what about the prisoners who only appear before a judge every six months? If their hearing is postponed, that's another six-month wait," he added.
Ducat said he has no fear of being convicted because none of the children or teachers he allegedly held hostage inside the bus on the morning of March 28, 2007 were in any danger or have even filed a complaint.
"I only plan to present four witnesses in my defense but anyone could go to Parola in Tondo and ask the parents there what they think of me. Even the four police officers who allegedly charged me can't say with conviction that what I did was hostage-taking," he said.
A need to be heard?
The facts in his case are simple: Ducat invited pupils and teachers in the day care center which he operated to join a field trip on the day of the incident. Instead of going on a field trip, Ducat, along with Caezar Carbonell, parked the bus full of children at the Bonifacio Shrine near Manila City Hall and held them hostage for more than 10 hours while airing a litany of sociopolitical grievances.
The incident, which was covered live by radio dzMM and ABS-CBN News Channel, captured the attention of scores of local and international news organizations including CNN, BBC and Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera.
Ironically, it was not the first time that Ducat had captured the attention of the media.
In 1989, Ducat held hostage a priest in Sta. Cruz, Manila for allegedly misusing church funds. Ducat, who is an engineer by profession, said he was surprised that so many reporters covered the hostage-taking.
"I only wanted to let my grievances be heard because the parish council didn't want to hear what the priest was doing with the church money," he said. He added that the incident was quickly hushed up because too much media attention would expose the priest's shenanigans.
In 1995, he again landed in the news after climbing the 18-meter Mabuhay Rotonda monument between Manila and Quezon City and urging the public to vote for Filipino candidates. Ducat says he did the stunt after noticing that more candidates of Chinese ancestry were being voted into office especially in local elections.
Ducat dismissed charges that he conducts publicity stunts because of a deep psychological need for attention. "There comes a point in time when drastic measures are needed to get the attention of people who refuse to listen. The things that I do to get attention do not benefit me. Some issues are too important to be sidelined because of small, ineffectual gestures," he said.
Free education for the poor
Ducat said the hostage-taking incident was a way of getting people's attention to the important issue of free education for impoverished children.
He said he realized the importance of free education after he started funding and operating the Musmos Day Care Center in Parola, Tondo in early 2006.
"Half of the children who enroll in my day care center drop out because their families can't afford to buy school supplies. Some of the children don't even know if they will eat that day. Their parents think that because they are poor, the children don't need to be educated, not knowing that it is through education that they will have a chance to escape their lot," he said.
"It is the government's role to ensure that these children from poor families are given an education," he said.
But what of the danger of bringing guns with live ammunition inside the bus?
Ducat said the guns were more for their protection because they would have been swamped by policemen if the authorities saw that they were unarmed. "That is why I kept telling them not to shoot or harm us because I would never do that."
A year after the incident, Ducat said there is still much to be desired about the Arroyo administration's efforts to stamp out corruption. After all, he said less than a month after the hostage-taking, President Arroyo was already in China, signing a contract for a national broadband network that was grossly overpriced.
"Imagine how many children could be fed and clothed and given a good education with $130 million? Imagine how many poor Filipinos could benefit from just a fraction of the money? It seems the whole world was listening but not Malacañang," he said.
His own reward
Inmates play at the new basketball court, which was paid for by Ducat.
To be sure, Ducat's crusade has come at great personal cost to him. The engineer said his handicrafts factory has shut down while his construction business floundered after he was jailed last year. His lone source of income is from the sale of lots and houses in Spring Green Village subdivision in Cavite, which he owns.
A new chapel in Manila City Jail.
Supt. Emilio Culang, warden of Manila City Jail, said that Ducat has sponsored several workshops that teach livelihood skills to inmates. He said Ducat also paid for the construction of a new basketball court and a small chapel inside the jail.
Despite his generosity, jail guards said Ducat is treated like any ordinary inmate and does not have any special privileges. Every day, he waits his turn for the daily headcount of the 5,000 plus inmates in the jail. He also lines up for his meals, just like an ordinary inmate.
It is a far cry from his more-than-comfortable life outside prison where his business afforded him many simple luxuries. "Sometimes, my family would go and eat out. Now, I only see my family on weekends when they visit," he said.
Ducat said he continues to spend close to P100,000 monthly for the maintenance of the Musmos Day Care center. Despite the hostage-taking, enrollment went up to over 400 pupils last year, he said.
He admits, however, that because of his financial hardships, he will be forced to stop financing the school next year. "We have to find a benefactor to keep the school going."
He then brightened up and said that one of the children whom he held hostage last year is now a Grade 1 honor student in another school.
He then excused himself, saying that he will be giving a congratulatory speech via phone patch to the more than 200 graduates of his day care center. "We shouldn't keep the children waiting," he said with a smile.