Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to dig deeper into the Oct. 20 massacre of nine sugarcane farmers in Sagay City, Negros Occidental last month, after its initial progress report contained nothing about who the killers were.
The farmers, members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers, reportedly tried to occupy a part of Hacienda Nene on Oct. 20, and were resting in their makeshift homes when gunmen opened fire and killed them.
A human rights lawyer working on their case, Benjamin Ramos, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in the city of Kabankalan, Negros Occidental on Nov. 6.
The NBI, which was directed to look into the crime on Oct. 23, had submitted a progress report, but Guevarra said it was “basically a narration of what happened before, during, and after the attack, based on the accounts of witnesses.”
“I directed them to investigate more deeply,” he added.
Police initially blamed communist rebels for the death of the farmers, which included four women and two minors, some of whom were reportedly burned.
Survivors denied the suggestion and said the NFSW denied official statements accusing them of being a front for the New People’s Army.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon on Thursday condemned the killing of Ramos, an activist lawyer and a founding member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the killing of attorney Ramos. He is a great loss to the legal profession and the Filipino people, especially the oppressed whose rights he had bravely fought for all his life,” Drilon said in a statement.
“It is very alarming and deplorable. Attorney Ramos’ gruesome death and the previous attacks against other lawyers are inevitably sending a frightening signal to the legal profession,” Drilon said.
Ramos, according to the NUPL, is the 34th lawyer killed in just two years of the Duterte administration.
Ramos took up the case of nine sugar workers who were killed in Sagay and was working with the NFSW.
Earlier, minority senators called for an immediate Senate investigation into the Sagay massacre.
“That is worrisome. Who is safe now?” said Drilon, who called on the Justice Department to bring the perpetrators to justice swiftly.
“It is imperative that a thorough investigation is launched in order to determine the motive behind the killing and identify those responsible for the killing,” Drilon said.
“We must not let the culture of impunity to continue to prevail over the rule of law and our justice system. We can only do that if these killings are resolved and prevented. The police must have realized this now,” Drilon said.
Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said the killing should be investigated and the full force of the law must be enforced.
Senate Resolution No. 929, filed by minority Senators Leila de Lima, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes IV and Drilon, said the Sagay massacre should prompt the government to take a hard look at the decades-old failure of the government’s agrarian reform program.
The resolution noted that indiscriminate killing of the members of the impoverished and marginalized sectors of the society by those who circumvent the law, such as powerful landowners and local warlords, must be put to an end.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has tagged the killings of the sugarcane workers as part of the supposed communist-led “Red October” plot to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.
Other reports, however, said private armies and paramilitary groups backed by the military and police were purportedly behind the series of killings of peasant leaders in the Negros islands.
Duterte has also blamed the communists.
Minority senators pointed out, however, that based on the initial fact-finding mission by human rights and leftist groups, Hacienda Nene lessor Allan Simbingco and other identified landowners related to a big political clan were behind the massacre.
“This (killing) is not an isolated case as it only reflects the prevailing situation in many farm lands around the country, necessitating immediate attention of government to address the plight of our Filipino farmers,” they said in the resolution.
“The death of the farmers should lead to a stronger program to implement social justice measures and protect our impoverished countrymen and women. It should not be used as a political device to impute criminal acts against critics of this administration without any factual basis,” they added.
Amnesty International Philippines also condemned Ramos’ killing, calling it a “new low in the worsening culture of impunity in the Philippines.”
In a statement, the group’s chairman, Ritz Lee Santos III, said the killing was “another blow to the government’s already dismal human rights reord.”
“When human rights defenders are silenced for good, who else will come to the defense of the growing number of victims of human rights abuses?” he said.