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NBI concludes, Lacson agrees: Espinosa killing a 'rubout'

Senator Panfilo Lacson presiding at the legislative inquiry into the Espinosa killing. File photograph from Albert Calvelo / Senate PRIB
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MANILA - (UPDATE, 11:15 P.M) Philippine police murdered town mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. while he was helpless in a jail cell, Justice department investigators said Tuesday, contradicting claims by the accused - which President Rodrigo Duterte backed - that he was killed in a gunbattle.

The accusations by the National Bureau of Investigation deepened concerns that police were carrying out summary executions as part of Duterte's controversial war on crime, which has claimed more than 5,100 lives in just over five months.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, leading the Senate inquiry into Espinosa's Nov. 5 shooting in his cell at the Baybay, Leyte sub-provincial jail, quickly expressed his agreement with the NBI findings, even as he is still wrapping up his committeee report.

"It could not have been another finding. Everything was clear and pat. I would have a problem if it came out different," Lacson said, in Filipino.

The NBI said police shot dead Espinosa and cellmate Raul Yap last month as they were defenseless in a provincial jail cell, using a controversial search warrant to enter the cell at dawn, supposedly on the basis of intelligence that the men were hiding guns and drugs.

"After conducting an exhaustive investigation of the incidents surrounding the killing of Mayor Espinosa and Yap, the NBI concluded that the testimonies of several witnesses had disputed the claim of an alleged shootout between the (police) operatives and inmates Mayor Espinosa and Raul Yap but (was) a 'rub out'," the NBI said in a statement.

"Rub out" is a local expression, referring to the police killing a suspect and then saying he died in a gunbattle.

"The pieces of evidence, both testimonial and the forensic evidence all agree. We believe we have a very strong case," NBI deputy director Ferdinand Lavin told reporters.

Lavin said the NBI had recommended murder and perjury charges against 24 officers for their alleged role in the killings and subsequent lies.

The justice department will then decide whether to file the murder charges. 

The NBI recommended to the Department of Justice the filing of multiple murder and perjury charges against 24 CIDG Region 8 officers and other individuals involved in the killing of Espinosa and his cell mate, Raul Yap, on November 5.

"It was patently clear that the acts of the CIDG-8 operatives showed a community of purpose or an implied conspiracy," the NBI added.

Facing multiple murder and perjury charges are CIDG Region 8 chief Superintendent Marvin Marcos, Superintendent Noel Matira, Chief Inspector Leo Laraga, Senior Inspectors Deogracia Diaz and Fritz Blanco, Senior Police Officers Melvin Cayobit, Eric Constantino, Benjamin Dacallos, Juanito Duarte and Alphinor Serrano Jr., police officers Johnny Ibanez, Norman Abellanosa, Niel Centino, Bernard Orpilla, Lloyd Ortiguesa, Jerlan Cabiyaan, Cristal Gisma and Divine Grace Songalia.

Also facing charges are PNP Regional Maritime Unit 8 personnel Chief Inspector Calixto Canillas Jr. and Inspector Lucresito Candelosas as well as police officers Antonio Docil, Mark Cadilo, John Ruel Daculan and Jaime Bacsal.

Senate inquiry to proceed

Lacson, chairman of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs investigating the incident, also told journalists that the findings of NBI will not affect the inquiry since the committee can still proceed "in aid of legislation."

Among the pieces of documentary evidence presented during the Senate hearing were the logbook of the prison facility, the testimony of a member of Regional Tactical Operation Center (RTOC), the medico-legal findings of Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO), including the move of the Supreme Court in investigating the judge who issued the search warrant.

In an earlier hearing of the Lacson panel, the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) of Region 8, led by Supt. Marvin Marcos, denied allegations of summary execution of Espinosa and Yap.

At last Monday's (Dec. 5) resumption of hearing by the Lacson committee, a widow of a police officer who was gunned down in September said her husband was killed after he declined to work on a "project" allegedly pitched by Supt. Marcos - finding a hitman to kill Mayor Espinosa.

Police under fire

The accused police had claimed they fired in self-defense at the pair when they went into the jail cell before dawn to carry out a search warrant.

The police alleged Espinosa, who was in jail after being arrested in October on drug and gun possession charges, had a firearm and methamphetamine in the cell.

Lawmakers, media groups and human rights advocates had ridiculed that version of events, asking why police had to carry out a search in a jail cell at night and why CCTV footage of the event had disappeared.

They also asked how a man in jail could have a gun and drugs, and why he would shoot at police knowing he was outnumbered.

Duterte backs cops' version

However Duterte, who has pledged never to let a policeman go to jail for waging his war on crime, repeatedly defended the officers involved.

Duterte had accused Espinosa, mayor of the town of Albuera in the eastern province of Leyte, of being a drug lord.

He had initially given police "shoot-to-kill" orders if Espinosa did not surrender, prompting the mayor to turn himself in.

In a speech late Monday, Duterte defended the police who killed Espinosa and said he believed their version of events.

"Do not force me to believe the theories and assumptions, even with the witnesses, that the mayor was killed (illegally) in the prison," he said.

Duterte had previously signalled he was happy Espinosa had been shot dead.

"You have here a guy, a government employee, using his office and money of government, cooking (illegal drugs) and destroying the lives of so many millions of Filipinos. So what is there for me to say about it?" he said last month.

Duterte's police chief initially stood down the police officer in charge of the raid pending an investigation, but the president immediately reinstated him.

Duterte, 71, won May elections in a landslide on a promise to kill tens of thousands of criminals to prevent the Philippines from becoming a narco-state.

His subsequent war on crime, in which an average of more than 30 people a day are being killed, has led to fears police are carrying out mass extrajudicial killings.

Duterte has repeatedly pledged to protect police from murder charges relating to his crime war, and pardon them if they are found guilty. (With a report by Philippine Star)