DILG chief on re-opening of Mamasapano: Respect previous probes

MANILA, Philippines – Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento says he respects the Senate’s decision to re-open a probe into a bloody police operation that resulted in the death of at least 60 persons, mostly elite cops. But for him, the inquiry has been exhausted enough.

Dumaan na ito sa proseso. Nasa Kamara pa ako eh dinaanan na ito, napakahabang inquiry ang ginawa noon. Napakarami nang ginawang imbestigasyon at nai-file na yung kaso sa Department of Justice. Siguro para sa akin – personal ko lang na opinyon – eh siguro 'yung mga dinaanang hearings ay irespeto na natin 'yung kung ano man ang mga resulta ng imbestigation na ginawa dati,” Sarmiento told reporters on Tuesday, January 5, on the sidelines of police, fire, and jail bureaus’ New Year’s Call at Camp Crame.

(It’s gone through a process. I was still in Congress when it went through that process, a very long inquiry happened. There have been countless investigations and cases have been filed by the Department of Justice. For me – and this is just my personal take – maybe we should just respect previous hearings and whatever results came out of previous investigations.)

On Tuesday, the Senate’s rules committee gave the go signal to launch additional hearings on the infamous “Oplan Exodus,” in response to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s request.

Enrile, who was under detention in Camp Crame when the Senate first probed the bloody encounter, claims he has “personal information” and “new evidence.”

It has been close to a year since the bloody clash.

In a statement released Tuesday, Senator Grace Poe, who chaired the Senate hearings on the Mamasapano encounter in 2015, said the additional hearing is scheduled on January 25 – exactly a year after Exodus took place.

Prior to taking a Cabinet post, Sarmiento was a member of the House of Representatives, representing Western Samar. He noted that he sat through the kilometric hearings as well.

Napakahaba ng hearing doon. Ganoon rin naman, napanood naman natin ang naging proseso sa Senado. Siguro naman ay pwede nating masabing i-respecto nalang natin ang unang ginawang imbestigasyon in the same Congress,” added Sarmiento, who was asked if politics was behind moves to re-open the probe.

(The hearings were long. It was the same in the Senate. Maybe at this point in time, we should just respect the investigation that took place in the same Congress.)

Sarmiento is a member of the ruling Liberal Party (LP), which is fielding his DILG predecessor Manuel Roxas II as its standard-bearer in 2016. Poe is also running for president.

Bloody operation

Late January 2015, some 400 members of the elite PNP Special Action Force (SAF) entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao to carry out “Oplan Exodus,” an operation that targeted Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan) and Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman.

SAF personnel were able to neutralize Marwan but Usman escaped during that January 25, 2015, operation. But it was when troops tried to extricate from the kill-site that all hell broke loose.

Two SAF companies – the 55th Special Action Company (SAC) and the 84th SAC or the Seaborne – found themselves trapped, surrounded by local armed men, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other private armed groups.

All but one of the 36 members of the 55th SAC died during the firefight, while the Seaborne lost 9 of its men. At least 3 civilians and 18th rebels from the MILF also died as a result of the hours-long clashes.

Exodus is the bloodiest one-day encounter in the PNP’s history and prompted the derailment of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the result of negotiations between President Benigno Aquino III’s government and the MILF.

Aquino was also criticized for his perceived lack of empathy for the fate of the SAF 44, his involvement in the operation, and for allowing his friend, then PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima to play a role despite the latter’s suspension. (READ: President Aquino and the ghosts of Mamasapano)

The clash once again made headlines in September last year, after Aquino himself said that some questions had yet to be answered. Not long after, though, the President said the case was finally closed. 

Despite this, Palace spokesman Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr. said the Senate's positions should be respected. "Kilalanin lang natin na sa ating sistema ng gobyerno ay mayroong separation of powers at anuman ang opinyon o posisyon ng Ehekutibo, nariyan pa rin ‘yung dalawa pang sangay na mayroon din namang laya at karapatang isagawa ‘yung inaakala nilang nararapat," he said on Tuesday. 

(In our system of government, there's a separation of powers. Whatever the opinion or the position of the Executive is, there are still the other two branches of government that have the freedom and right to do what they think is right.) 

Committee report stands

In the aftermath of the operation, probes were launched by the PNP’s Board of Inquiry (BOI), the Senate as headed by Poe, the House of Representatives (HOR), the MILF, and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) tasked to check on tensions in the area.

The DOJ would later release its own findings and eventually charge 90 people for the death of the 35 members of the 55th SAC. (READ: 'Majority' of 'Oplan Exodus' survivors leave SAF 6 months later)

Investigations found lapses in police protocol, a defective operational plan, American involvement, and instances of misinformation during the crucial hours of the operation. (READ: Cheat sheet: The truths and lies of Mamasapano)

The Senate committee’s draft report, which was signed by 21 members, said Aquino must “accept responsibility” for the operation. The President and the administration, including then Interior Chief Roxas, however, insist Aquino did what he could given the information available to him. (READ: Senate draft report: 'Aquino must bear responsibility')

Roxas’ non-involvement in the operation is another touchy point in the issue. Despite being interior chief and National Police Commission chairman, Roxas did not know of the operation until after the body count rose.

The PNP’s officer-in-charge then, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, was also kept in the dark.

In her Tuesday statement, Poe said the new hearing would not affect the committee’s report but said “there will always be space for new evidence.”

But Sarmiento, who has served as Western Samar representative for close to two terms, said a lot of time and effort has already been poured into the controversial police operation.

"Talking as a former legislator, eh napakaraming nakabinbin na usapain sa Camara at Senado na napakaimportanteng bills na siguro dapat ring tignan at ihabol, maipasa,” he said.

(There are a lot of discussions pending before the HOR and the Senate, important bills that must be looked into and passed into law.) – Rappler.com