October 13, 2006

A cry for justice

Once again, another victim of extrajudicial killings has fallen but this time the assassins have done the unthinkable. They have murdered not just a man of the cloth, but a bishop no less; one who had served as the Obispo Maximo, or pope, of the Iglesia Filipina Independencia (IFI). And they did it right inside his parish church as he lay sleeping, utterly defenseless.

Why is it that Bishop Ramento’s family, his fellow priests and most of his flock, as well as his admirers and friends are one in saying that they suspect his murder to be politically motivated? Why, on the other hand, is the Philippine National Police (PNP) insistent that this is an open and shut case of robbery with homicide?

We look for motive. Who would want Bishop Ramento dead?

It is clear from all the testimonials we have heard about him that the good bishop was admired and highly respected as a church leader, not just in the country but internationally.

He lived a modest life ministering to his flock that included impoverished “street children” whom he fed and gave pocket money to so that they could keep studying. He was assiduous in providing inspiration and support to his beleaguered priests in Tarlac and nearby provinces; many of them had been tagged “communists” or “communist sympathizers” as they persevered working in highly militarized areas. He had no personal enemies.

But he went beyond works of charity and church ritual. The causes he espoused and fought for ranged from human, civil and political rights, social justice, freedom from neocolonial impositions, good and upright governance to a just and lasting peace that addresses the root causes of armed conflict.

Concretely, Bishop Ramento vigorously opposed government socio-economic policies that spell poverty and misery for the majority of the people and their continued exploitation by the elite. He took up the cudgels for oppressed workers and peasants especially those who fought for their rights and were under attack such as the striking farm and sugar mill workers of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac.

He denounced the systematic fraud that attended the 2004 presidential elections and called for Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to resign or be ousted. He took an uncompromising but principled position rejecting Mrs. Arroyo’s push for Charter change. He courageously stood up against military incursions into and abuse of civilian communities, political killings of progressives and activists and other forms of state terrorism.

In short, he fit the Arroyo regime’s description of “destabilizer” and “enemy” to a tee. It did not surprise him therefore that he had been included in the military’s “order of battle,” that he was on the receiving end of numerous anonymous death threats and that he would be surveilled and harassed in various ways obvious and subtle.

But like many other victims of summary executions, Bishop Ramento took no extraordinary measures to protect himself. He remained vulnerable because he did not have the means nor did he wish to hire bodyguards; he did not have a well-secured office nor residence; and many times he commuted through public transportation as he went about his pastoral duties. He believed that his protection lay in fearlessly exposing and denouncing political persecution and state terrorism wherever and whenever it took place.

We in Bayan were hoping against hope that the local and international uproar against the spate of political killings and other grievous human rights violations under the Arroyo regime would stay the hand of the fascists and the rabid anti-communists in Malacanang. Then the news came about the brutal murder of the well-loved Bishop Ramento. This latest outrage brings the political killings as well as their official cover-up to a new and higher level.

What does the PNP posit as motive for his murder? According to the investigators and even Task Force Usig, the case is simple and straightforward: “robbery with homicide”. They have the suspects and the stolen goods to show for it. Case closed.

But why would petty criminals choose to rob Bishop Ramento when his parish church is so obviously a poor man’s church. The bishop’s simple, even frugal, lifestyle is well known in the community and is entirely consistent with a cursory inspection of the church premises.

True, petty thieves had struck two previous times, on September 11 and 23 of this year. They got a dvd player and some cash; later, another dvd player (a replacement for the one they stole) and a low-end cell phone but not much else. The first time, the bishop was not around; the second time, he was asleep and they left him unharmed.

In fact, one of the suspects that the police now accuse of robbing and killing the bishop, was identified by witnesses to the theft that had earlier taken place. Why would these thieves come back so soon, so brazenly, a little more than a week later, knowing as they did, if indeed they were the same felons, that there was nothing more of value that they could get? And why did they attack the bishop, stabbing him seven times, with obvious intent to kill?

The police want the public to believe that the purported thieves killed Bishop Ramento in the unlikely scenario that he fought them off to protect his earthly possessions, of which he had very little. Quite conveniently, his body was found in the sala of his quarters and not in the bedroom. But there were blood stains in the bedroom so the attack must have started there. Curiously, the autopsy report didn’t show that there had been a struggle. Why don’t the police have any theories about how he was killed?

Why were the police investigators led by Tarlac police director Senior Supt. Nicanor Bartolome so precipitate in their conclusions? They didn’t they even secure the crime scene properly and allowed it to be contaminated by the entry of so many people before and after their spot investigation.

Why won’t the PNP give any credence to the theory that Bishop Ramento’s slay could be another political killing. Mrs. Arroyo herself formed Task Force Usig (Task Force Probe), then the much ballyhooed Melo Commission, supposedly to look into accusations of political killings happening nationwide. Why didn’t they even make any sort of investigation along these lines?

Why for example, didn’t they follow up their lead about a motorcycle sighted by an IFI priest outside the bishop’s residence the day before the killing. In fact they didn’t even take any statements from the family and the local priests but were content with an initial affidavit of the victim’s companion that could be interpreted to favor the robbery angle.

Where is the material evidence that would irrefutably place the suspects on the scene of the crime? The PNP have nothing except “confessions” and the alleged stolen items that the relatives and the bishop’s staff have yet to identify but which the police are quick to say was indeed the bishop’s.

After the hue and cry about the GMA regime’s track record vis a vis the political killings – her regime’s complicity and the reigning impunity of perpetrators – it would appear that the known pattern of gun-wielding, motorcycle-riding assassins was avoided in this instance. The bishop is made to appear a victim of a random, common crime.

Now the police in this country are notorious for doing sloppy investigations, as a matter of habit or deliberately, and in coming up with fall guys who they beat into “confessing”. Worse, where state forces such as the military or their surrogate death squads are involved under the framework of the government’s current counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, (Oplan Freedom Watch), the police will have all the necessary “evidence” to undertake another horrendous cover-up.

The public is not new to this. Didn’t it take the PNP forever to find “Garci”, the elections official accused of engineering massive fraud to favor Mrs. Arroyo in the last presidential elections? Didn’t they cover up for the military’s intelligence arm, ISAFP, when the latter illegally raided the apartment of defeated (some say, cheated) vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda’s handwriting expert? Didn’t they arrest militant trade union leader and now Congressman Crispin Beltran and attempted to do the same to five other progressive parliamentarians on trumped-up charges through an illegal arrest without warrant? Aren’t they manufacturing witnesses and spurious documentation for their campaign to run after Mrs. Arroyo’s political opponents?

The activist organizations under attack have experienced the suspected military’s breaking and entering offices in order to undertake theft of documents and whatever “incriminating” material they can find, for intelligence purposes as well as to further case their targets before “neutralization”. The police have dutifully recorded these in their blotters as simple cases of “theft”.

But there was nothing worth stealing from the bishop except the life he had dedicated to the fight for truth, social justice, a better lot for the exploited and oppressed and genuine peace. Clearly the authorities are not at all interested in finding out who would have wanted and benefited from snuffing out such a life.

Let us rage until justice is served for Bishop Alberto Ramento and all victims of political killings under the Arroyo regime!###

*Published in Business World
13 – 14 October 2006


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