Scared drug-war witnesses seek church protection

Philippine bishop rebuffs govt attempt to take 2 child witnesses into custody.

Taxi driver Tomas Bagcal tells reporters police officers shot dead 19-year-old robbery suspect Carl Arnaiz after he was turned over to their custody. (Photo by Vincent Go)

The Philippine government on Sept. 11 ordered a Catholic bishop and a faith-based human rights group to hand over witnesses to a series of teen killings in the capital.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre warned he would file obstruction of justice charges against Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan and multi-faith rights group, Rise Up For Life, for giving sanctuary to scared witnesses.

The prelate, however, scoffed at the threat.

"I wonder in what way we in the church have obstructed justice; if all we did was provide sanctuary for witnesses at the parents' own request, and at no expense to the government at that," the bishop said.

Aguirre's threat followed an embarrassing late-night attempt to take custody of two child witnesses — siblings — in the killing last month of 17-year-old student Kian de los Santos.

Police appeared at David's residence after 10 p.m. on Sept. 8, with the children's father and a legal demand for custody.

But after meeting his children and talking to their mother, an overseas worker in the Middle East, Roy Conception instead asked to join them under church protection.

On Sept. 10, Rise Up announced that a key witness in the Aug. 18 killing of 19-year-old Carl Arnaiz had also sought sanctuary.

Taxi driver Tomas Bagcal said the police "staged" a shootout.

Bagcal said Arnaiz was alive and had surrendered to police after a botched robbery attempt.

Aguirre insisted the Justice Department had sole authority to protect witnesses in high-profile cases.

"Only our witness protection program has the legal mandate to secure witnesses," Aguirre said.

The bishop, however, said he would present witnesses in his custody anytime the government needs them.

"We are actually facilitating, not obstructing justice," Bishop David said.

It is not surprising that children who perceive some police to be killers would balk at close contact with other uniformed personnel, Bishop David pointed out.

Lawyer June Ambrosio, head of the center for legal aid of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, said that their father's decision "was his and his children's choice."

Bagcal sought sanctuary after neighbors said police were asking about his whereabouts. The driver said the unwanted attention came after he questioned the contents of legal statements they had forced him to sign.

Father Gilbert Billena, spokesperson of Rise Up, said Bagcal is willing to cooperate with government investigators.

"Our immediate concern is his safety. His testimony could shed light on this case and possibly end state policies that lead to extra-judicial killings," said Father Billena.

A third case, that of a 14-year old found hog-tied with torture marks and 30 stab wounds, has increased public outrage.

Reynaldo de Guzman's parents rejected a police DNA test that claimed the boy they had identified was not their son. The public attorney's office also criticized the police's handling of the DNA examination.

Source: UCAN

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