OPPOSITION lawmakers on Monday accused the government of engaging in a whitewash after House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. issued a gag order and tried to stop the probe of the Mamasapano massacre scheduled for Tuesday.
As protests mounted, Belmonte recalled the gag order and the press statement as quickly as he issued them.
At 10 a.m., the Speaker announced the Mamasapano hearing would be put off. But by the afternoon, after lawmakers began airing their protests, Belmonte said the hearing would push through after all.
“There will be a hearing,” Belmonte said, admitting that he had sought its postponement to await the findings of the police board of inquiry before proceeding.
Despite Belmonte’s flip-flop, the House hearing seems headed for cancellation as all the resource speakers – Philippine National Police officer-in-charge Deputy Director Leonardo Espina, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, and relieved Special Action Force director Getulio Napeñas—all declined their summons.
Espina said he would have seen to the wakes and burials of the 44 fallen police commandos. Roxas and Napeñas did not give any reason for not attending the hearing.
The committee on public order headed by Negros Occidental Rep. Jeffrey Ferrer is expected to focus instead on the ground rules this week. Another session set for Tuesday next week would include resource speakers.
“These calls for a congressional probe will push through. There is no gag order or whitewash here because I, too want to get to the bottom of this matter,” Belmonte said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, an administration critic, said a whitewash was possible because the PNP board of inquiry composed of police generals is not expected to objectively investigate the killing of the 44 SAF personnel, since doing so would involve investigating the involvement of US forces, and the roles of President Benigno Aquino III and his suspended police chief Alan Purisima.
“Already, President Aquino has preempted the board of inquiry during his televised speech by washing his hands of any responsibility and blaming the SAF forces for failing to coordinate with other units until it was too late. There is no way that the board will find President Aquino accountable for the botched operation after that speech,” Colmenares said.
Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza added: “We have to pursue the congressional probe because the people are getting impatient and suspect of a possible whitewash and cover up. Let us avoid to aggravate the already volatile situation.”
Nationalist People’s Coalition stalwart and Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian dared President Aquino to “tell all” and explain his “direct hand” in the covert SAF operations to neutralize international terrorist Zulfkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, following the revelation of relieved SAF Director Getulio Napenas, who said it was the President who gave the green light for the Jan. 25 SAF operation.
Napenas’ revelation was the smoking gun against the President who, until now, has refused to answer categorically media questions on who approved the Mamasapano, Maguindanao, operation, Gatchalian said.
In his televised address to the nation last Wednesday, President Aquino admitted that he knew about the operation, which was designed under the leadership Purisima, the suspended PNP chief, based on an “actionable intelligence.”
“As commander-in-chief, it is the prerogative of the President to order a top secret operation to bag international terrorists. However, it is also his duty as the Chief Executive to make a full disclosure to the Filipino people on the SAF operation that resulted in a fiasco with 44 of its personnel being slaughtered by the MILF,” said Gatchalian.
Gatchalian also questioned how Purisima managed to get out of the country and go to Saipan since as a government official, he is required to get a travel authority from Malacanang despite his suspension as PNP chief.
“President Aquino should order General Purisima to come back immediately and face the music. His going abroad can be interpreted as flight, which almost always is an indication of guilt,” Gatchalian said.
Gatchalian said he had earlier received information from unimpeachable sources that the SAF operation was funded by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) on orders from President Aquino.
PAOCC, which has an annual budget of P500 million, submitted to the President the after-operation report, which indicated that the intelligence information on the whereabouts of Marwan came from the SAF.
Gatchalian said Purisima should be summoned by Congress to the scheduled investigation of the failed SAF operation since he was the one who can give the details of the operation from the planning stage up to the implementation.
“Since Congress cannot summon the President, his alter-egos, including General Purisima, can very well tell the committee all the details the Filipino people wanted to know about the SAF operation,” Gatchalian said.
Colmenares demanded that the President not reinstate Purisima.
“General Purisima has remained silent the past few days while the entire PNP is wracked with disunity because of the news that he directly commanded the Mamasapano operations and followed US instructions not to coordinate with other units to support the SAF forces. He will no longer be a credible PNP chief, even among PNP personnel, if he defied the suspension order of the Ombudsman while following orders from the US instead of the DILG Secretary and the acting PNP Chief thereby violating the PNP chain of command,” Colmenares said.
“If President Aquino and General Purisima are good leaders, they should own up their responsibility for the botched operation instead of blaming the SAF for the bloody fiasco,” he added.
Belmonte, a staunch ally of the President, said Congress had “little time to waste” on the Mamasapano investigation, given its legislative agenda.
He acknowledged, however, that support for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law had been eroded by the Mamasapano incident.
Roxas said the board of inquiry, headed by Espina, would include Directorate for Integrated Police Operations Western Mindanao head Police Director Edgardo Ingking, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group chief Police Director Benjamin Magalong and Directorate for Research and Development head Chief Superintendent Catalino Rodriguez Jr, who used to be Northern Mindanao chief of police.
Roxas asked the board to determine what happened during the encounter, if there were lapses, and if there were persons liable.
Initial investigation showed that the clash lasted 12 hours on Sunday, from 5 a.m. to sundown, Roxas said.
Espina confirmed that there were 393 SAF members involved in the Mamasapano raid but only 35 entered the interior of Barangay Tukanalipao to get the terrorists.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III, who has called for the formation of an independent truth commission to investigate the killings, said such a panel could call on President Benigno Aquino III to shed light on his role.
“I think the word should be invite and not compel...The truth commission can invite the President. I’m sure he will accede. We have faith in his leadership. Truth will dictate how high (the investigation) will go,” said Guingona, a member of the President’s Liberal Party and his staunch ally.
Despite a Palace statement that said there was no need for a truth commission, Guingona said he believed the President would support the creation of such a body.
The President’s first cousin, Senator Paulo Benigno Aquino IV, also supported the creation of an independent panel, as did Senator Aquilino Pimentel III.
The senators, who said they will file a bill to create the truth commission, said the body will have the power to cite in contempt those who do not respond to its subpoenas.
Three members of the House of Representatives—Reps. Sitti Turabin-Hataman, Teodoro Marcelino and Jorge Banal--also announced their plan to file bills creating the truth commission.
Guingona said the members of the commission will be appointed by President Aquino.
“All truth commissions are appointed by the President. Who else will appoint the members? We have confidence in the leadership of the President. We believe the President will back it also,” said Guingona.
Asked what assurance the public would have that the President would not be spared in the investigation, Guingona said the members of the commission will be persons with known probity and integrity.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago also backed the creation of the commission, and said a separate political branch of government must investigate the Mamasapano clash.
“We can’t just rely on the police board. It should have no ties at all with the military or from the Office of the President who might be able to influence the members of that truth commission,” said Santiago.
Senate President Franklin Drilon said he would support any process that will uncover the truth in the Mamasapano incident.
“Having said that, at this point we will see which process is most effective. There are already effectively three ongoing hearings on the Bangsamoro issues, one is the one that will be conducted by Senator Grace Poe,” said Drilon. With Maricel V. Cruz and Florante S. Solmerin
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