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Senate to probe death squad ‘confession’

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the committee, clarified that the Senate hearing would not be a reopening of the inquiry conducted by the committee on justice and human rights on extrajudicial killings. Lacson office/Released

MANILA, Philippines - Warning of a possible perjury case because of changing testimonies, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said yesterday retired police officer Arthur Lascañas would have another chance to tell his story on the existence of a Davao death squad (DDS), once the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs sits down to listen to his claims.

Lacson, who chairs the committee, clarified that the Senate hearing would not be a reopening of the inquiry conducted by the committee on justice and human rights on extrajudicial killings.

Lacson said it would be a new hearing based on the new revelations made by Lascañas in a press conference held at the Senate last Monday.

Sources said some senators allied with President Duterte had tried to stop the planned Senate inquiry into Lascañas’ new allegations, but more senators, in a closed-door meeting called by Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, decided to go on with the inquiry.

Some senators, including Richard Gordon, allegedly took issue with Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV’s providing the Senate as the venue for Lascanas’ press conference last Monday.

Gordon is concerned it might not be respectful for the Senate to just let witnesses, who had testified under oath, retract their statements and testify again.

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But after the senators’ caucus that delved on the issue for over an hour, the source said, 10 senators voted in favor of hearing Lascañas, seven voted against it, while five abstained.

Voting in favor of the hearing were Senators Francis Pangilinan, Francis Escudero, Ralph Recto, Franklin Drilon, Riza Hontiveros, Leila de Lima, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Joel Villanueva, Sonny Angara and Trillanes.

Those not in favor were Miguel Zubiri, Gordon, Cynthia Villar, Sherwin Gatchalian, Manny Pacquio, Pimentel and Gregorio Honasan.

Those who abstained were Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, Lacson, Nancy Binay, JV Ejercito and Loren Legarda.

Sens. Alan Cayetano and Grace Poe did not attend the caucus.

Accompanied by lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group last Monday, Lascañas backtracked from his previous statement denying the existence of the DDS and his involvement in any extrajudicial killings when he was still assigned in Davao City.

Lascañas now claims he was part of the DDS and that he personally participated in at least three murders in Davao City, including that of broadcast journalist Jun Pala in 2003, allegedly on the orders of Duterte, then mayor of the city.

A privilege speech delivered by Trillanes the other day calling for a probe on Lascañas’ claims prompted the move to hold a new hearing on the matter.

Trillanes specifically called on the committee on public order and dangerous drugs to conduct the inquiry, which the plenary approved right away.

Sotto noted while there was no objection to the referral to Lacson’s committee, Gordon, as chairman of the committee on justice and human rights, should likewise be updated, since he oversaw the previous hearing featuring Lascañas and has come out with a committee report.

That report claimed there was no proof to support the existence of the DDS, as well as state-sponsored killings in the country.

“At the very least he (Gordon) will be informed that there’s such a move, not to continue (the previous hearings), but to conduct a reinvestigation based on the new revelations of SPO3 Lascañas, which I will do,” Lacson said.

The senator stressed the hearing would be in aid of legislation.

Lacson has not yet set a date for the hearing, as his committee is still busy with its inquiry into the killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo.

Once the hearing is called, Lacson said he would invite police director Willy Garcia, chief of police of Davao City when Pala was killed.

Lacson said he has no intention of inviting self-confessed DDS hitman Edgar Matobato to the hearing because it would just prolong the proceedings.

Possible perjury case

Lacson said Lascañas would open himself to possible charges of perjury if his testimony in the new Senate hearing would contradict his testimony in the previous hearing of the Senate.

“The second issue is his credibility. This would definitely suffer because we wouldn’t know what is the truth,” Lacson said.

Eager to hear why Lascañas has changed his story, Poe supported the conduct of a new investigation into Lascañas’ claims, if only to complete the picture on the alleged DDS issue.

Poe said she did not sign the committee report prepared by Gordon because she felt the information presented during the hearings was not enough to come up with the conclusions it made.

Rep. Gary Alejano of party-list Magdalo and a former colleague of oppositionist Trillanes said a “divine encounter” when he had kidney surgery moved Lascañas to “reveal or make a public confession before God.”

Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay echoed Alejano’s view.

“He (Lascañas) is risking his life. Why should he risk his life if he is not telling the truth? Everything he said is confirmatory of what we already know, such as the CBCP pastoral letter, the Amnesty International report, the Human Rights Watch,” Lagman said.

Duterte not cleared in DDS

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) yesterday denied Malacañang’s claim that the commission has cleared Duterte of alleged involvement in the DDS extrajudicial killings.

The CHR said Lascañas’ revelations against the President last Monday would be considered in the investigation it is conducting on extrajudicial killings in Davao during Duterte’s tenure as mayor.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar had denied Lascanas’ allegations, saying the Senate, the ombudsman and the CHR had all cleared Duterte of his alleged involvement in the DDS.

But in response to Andanar, the CHR cited a 2012 resolution that urged the ombudsman to probe Duterte, then Davao City mayor, for his inaction to investigate the killings committed by the alleged vigilante group.

“The Commission did not clear the former mayor of Davao City of extrajudicial killings and his alleged involvement in the Davao death squad,” the commission said.

“It is clear from the quoted portions of the resolution that deaths have occurred in significant numbers and no investigations were conducted by the local government. Deaths continued to occur with impunity during the term of the former mayor,” it added.

The CHR said extrajudicial killings might be committed not only by direct participation, but also as a result of the failure of government to investigate and hold people to account.

“Tolerance or acquiescence to the killings is demonstrated by the inaction of state agents. Our previous investigation showed no serious efforts were undertaken to address the killings at the time,” it said.

The Office of the Ombudsman earlier dismissed the complaint against Duterte on DDS.

But the case was reopened last year, following revelations made by self-confessed hitman Matobato.

Lascañas had previously denied Matobato’s allegations, but on Monday recanted and tagged Duterte in various killings, including Pala’s murder.

Early last year, the CHR also reopened its investigation following the admissions made by Duterte during the campaign.

But CHR chairman Chito Gascon said the investigators hit a roadblock, as they found difficulty in getting new evidence in Davao City.

The reinvestigation remained open, with the CHR saying any new information on the matter will be pursued and investigated.

Human rights advocates said a probe by the United Nations on the alleged extrajudicial killings due to the Duterte government’s drug war has become urgent, following Lascañas’ revelations.

Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the UN must immediately open a probe on the deaths of more than 7,000 people in the government’s drug war.

Redemptorist priest Fr. Amado Picardal, who was once assigned in Davao and is a former spokesman of Coalition of Summary Executions and a critic of Duterte, said he hopes more cops would come out in the open to corroborate Lascañas’ claims and that the DDS exists.

Picardal said he left Davao City in 2011 after he was reassigned to Manila, but that summary killings went on even in 2015.

Meanwhile, Senator Aquino IV asked the Duterte administration yesterday not to mistake criticisms of its policies and controversies for efforts to destabilize the government.

“I think they need to separate what is the destabilization plot, and what is part of the democratic process,” Aquino said. “I think they’re not used to criticisms and resistance to the policies they are putting on the people.”

Saying the Liberal Party would never be a part of any destabilization plot, LP president Senator Pangilinan said allegations of destabilization appears to be a means to divert the attention of the public “from its own errors and inability to deliver on its promise to stop corruption and the drug menace.” – With Paolo Romero, Janvic Mateo, Delon Porcalla, Rhodina Villanueva, Evelyn Macairan

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