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UPPER RIGHT HAND: Triumph of Justice: The Farmers’ call — “Bigas Hindi Bala” (Rice Not Bullet)

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KIDAPAWAN CITY (MindaNews/22 March) — Almost five years after that horrific incident on April 1, 2016 at the national highway in Kidapawan City, eleven farmers and two health workers got their sighs of relief when the court handed down a judgment acquitting them.  After (spending) three days in the gym and women center where authorities brought them after the incident as part of the so called “police rescue operation,” the police officers charged them with direct assault allegedly for attacking them with stones and hard objects.

Lawyers from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) represented the eighteen accused in twenty-one cases for direct assault, which had been heard before the Municipal Trial Court in Cities of Kidapawan. However, only thirteen accused actively participated in the court proceedings. Five did not show up in the arraignment after posting bail.

The two health workers from the Parish of Arakan were acquitted on the ground that they presented credible evidence controverting prosecution’s version of the incident on April 1, 2016. One of the pieces of evidence was a video clip showing that the two were arrested when they were about to enter the gate of the Spottswood Methodist Center, a United Methodist Church (UMC)-owned compound housing its church and training facilities, fronting the national highway where the violent encounter between the police and protesters took place. The two were supposed to provide first aid to the injured farmers-protesters trapped inside the compound but surrounded by police and military personnel. They arrived in the said place hours after the incident and the highway was already cleared of protesters.

The video clip will also show that they were brought to a colored-gray vehicle apparently owned by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and not a police vehicle as narrated by the prosecution’s witness.

From the evidence, the two health workers clearly proved that they had no participation in the rally. Despite their objection to the arrest and explanation to the police, still, they were charged with direct assault brought by the violent dispersal in the morning of April 1, 2016.

On the other hand, the Court, speaking through Honorable Judge Gil Dela Banda, who took over the cases only sometime in October 2019 after the inhibition of the previous judge, acquitted the remaining eleven farmers for insufficiency of evidence.

According to the Court, while it was certain that police officers were injured during the dispersal, the prosecution’s evidence was insufficient to prove that the eleven accused-farmers were really the ones who stoned or struck the complainants. It found out that the police failed to observe its own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) in the arrest of the accused. The arresting officers did not even record the names of the accused in its police blotter. Moreover, considering the number of protesters who joined the rally which was estimated at three to five thousand, it is difficult to exactly identify the accused as the ones who threw the stones or struck the members of the police dispersal team with hard objects. In fact, the names of the accused were never mentioned in the police blotter.

The weeklong protest-rally, which culminated in a violent mayhem between the farmers and their supporters on one side and the law enforcers on the other side, resulted to deaths and injuries. One farmer was shot to death in the head while a bystander was killed by a stray bullet. Many were seriously injured on both sides.

Actually, more than eighty farmers had been charged with direct assault. Some were women and elderly. Except for the above-mentioned twenty one cases, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) in Kidapawan City handles the rest. They are still in the sala of another judge awaiting resolution of their demurrer to evidence.

Two elderly men were even charged with frustrated homicide with direct assault in the regional trial court, but dismissed due to lack of interest on the part of the principal complainant and witness. Perhaps, upon seeing the two elderly accused, he realized they could not have made that fatal attack on him considering their physical frailties.

It was at the height of the election fever in March 2016 when around three to five thousand people, mostly farmers and farm workers from the municipalities of Arakan, Magpet, Antipas, Makilala and Kidapawan, converged at the national highway calling the government to provide rice subsidy for their hungry families. Prior to that incident, a long dry spell affected farms, hence, the food shortage overwhelming the province. Delays in the government’s rice distribution systems aggravated the situation.

There were humors then that presidential aspirant, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, would arrive in Kidapawan to distribute rice and ask the barricading protesters to voluntarily disperse. This could have made him a hero in the eyes of the public, especially the farmers, and certainly get their votes. But the local officials in the camp of presidential aspirant Mar Roxas anticipated the move, thus, pre-empted the dispersal of the crowd.

There seems to be an iota of truth to this humor, considering that the leaders of the protesters and the local government inter-agency emergency committee were supposed to meet for a second round of dialogue brokered by the Diocese of Kidapawan in the morning of April 1, 2016, but the dispersal happened before the meeting. This fact can be gleaned also from a video clip where a negotiator for the protesters, a woman, told the police ground commander and local officials that they were waiting for the arrival of Mayor Duterte for just few minutes, and eventually disperse. But the opposing side did not heed the request, demanding that protesters must clear the national highway immediately. The violent dispersal followed.

No one among the accused farmers denied their participation in the protest-rally. But the reason is that, they were told, each one of them would receive one sack of rice from the government. They anticipated that a violent dispersal was imminent so they stayed away from the main road where the barricade was set up. During the week-long rally, there were some occasions that they would just go near the Spottswood Methodist Center but just to get their food rations.

After the dispersal in the morning of April 1, 2016, some of them just finished bathing in the nearby river; some were staying at the bunkhouses of workers in the nearby bridge; others, mostly women, stayed at the houses near the national highway, to prevent being hurt in the event of a tumultuous dispersal.

Only half of the legal battle has been won. The “Sword of Damocles” is still hanging in the heads of more than sixty accused who are still waiting for the outcome of their cases. Nevertheless, this incremental legal success is worth celebrating for as a triumph for justice for those who died and wounded, physically and emotionally, in that tragic day of April 1, 2016, which could have been a call to address hunger but responded with bullets.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Upper Right Hand is a revolving column of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM). Atty. Dionesio T. Alave, Jr. is the chair of People’s Peace Network, an alliance of local church and civil society organizations in Kidapawan City, which is actively involved in peace-building and promotion of justice and human rights. He has been a rural development worker since 1994 and a human rights lawyer upon admission to the bar in 2012.]

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