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Protect whistle-blowing soldier, victims' families and human rights defenders, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, October 28, 2010 - The Aquino administration should act on its pledges of justice and human rights by taking all necessary measures to protect a whistle-blowing soldier and the families of the victims, Human Rights Watch said today. Former Sgt. Esequias Duyogan is scheduled to testify in a pretrial hearing on October 29, 2010, implicating soldiers in the 2000 murder of six young men in Trento, Agusan del Sur province, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

"Sergeant Duyogan has risked his life for justice by testifying about a military atrocity," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Aquino administration should protect the witness and his family so that other brave soldiers will come forward when terrible crimes occur."

On October 14, 2000, six friends, Romualdo Orcullo, Jovencio Legare, Arnold Dangquiasan, Joseph Belar, Diosdado Oliver, and Artemio Ayala, were at a barangay fiesta - a village street party - when Army Cpl. Rodrigo Billones of the 62nd Infantry Battalion arrested them and took them to the nearby military camp. Their families have not seen them since.

In 2007, Duyogan came forward and told how, following the arrests, he witnessed 12 soldiers from his unit beat the six young men to death with an iron rod and bury them. Three days later, they dug up the bodies, loaded them on a service vehicle, and brought them to a remote area where they burned the corpses.

The Regional Trial Court in Agusan del Sur in July 2008 convicted Corporal Billones of kidnapping and "serious illegal detention" of the six men and sentenced him to 9 to 15 years in prison for each of the six victims. He has appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals.

In 2009, the families of the six slain men filed a case with the prosecutor alleging charges of multiple murder and kidnapping against the 12 other soldiers, including two officers. On October 29, Assistant Regional Prosecutor Vicente Abugho will question Duyogan and other witnesses in a hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to file the charges in court.

Human Rights Watch called on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to work with the Philippine National Police to protect the victims' families who have brought the case. Human rights defenders have told of several instances in which soldiers have harassed the family members and offered them money to drop the case.

Military personnel and other unidentified individuals have threatened and harassed Duyogan, his family, and human rights defenders working with him on several instances since he came forward to testify. In August 2007, a military officer visited him at his Agusan del Sur home, purportedly at the behest of the divisional commander, and offered him 200,000 pesos (US$4,600) to "go back to the folds of the military." Duyogan has not availed himself of the Justice Department's witness protection program as he believes it lacks independence and fears it is not safe.

Despite the long prison sentence and seriousness of the crime, Corporal Billones lives with his wife and two children in a house outside of the fence surrounding the Agusan del Sur provincial jail, though within the prison compound. An official at the jail told Human Rights Watch that the jail warden, who is a military reservist, had granted Billones this privilege out of "camaraderie."

Granting extraordinary privileges to soldiers convicted of serious crimes reinforces impunity and sends a message that abuses will go unpunished, Human Rights Watch said. Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo should order an inquiry into the terms of Billones' detention.

Human Rights Watch urged Secretary de Lima to work with nongovernmental organizations to assist in the protection of Duyogan and his family, and to direct the National Bureau of Investigation to promptly investigate instances of threat and harassment against those involved in the case.

Human Rights Watch renewed its calls to the Aquino administration to create an independent, accessible, and properly funded witness protection program. In exceptionally sensitive cases such as this, the Philippine government should consider working with foreign governments to provide for safe relocation outside of the country.

"If the Aquino administration acts in this case to ensure witnesses are properly protected, the prosecutors do their job, and that convicted soldiers do not receive privileges simply because of their military status - it will go a long way to overturning impunity," Pearson said.

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