Militiaman also accused of involvement in slaying of Italian missionary Father Fausto Tentorio
Activists hold a demonstration outside the Justice Department in Manila to protest the slow process in the investigation into the killing of Italian missionary priest Fausto Tentorio and the murder of tribal leaders in Mindanao. (Photo by Rene Sandajan)
The Philippines' Department of Justice has ordered the filing of charges against two ranking military men and several members of a militia group for the 2011 murder of an Italian priest in Mindanao.
Father Fausto Tentorio, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions who had worked with tribal people since 1978, was shot dead inside his church compound in Arakan town on Oct. 17, 2011.
State prosecutors announced that murder charges would be filed against Lt. Col. Joven Gonzales, Major Mark Espiritu, and several members of a paramilitary group in the province of North Cotabato.
Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo of Kidapawan welcomed the news, saying that the people of his diocese have "prayed and waited for this time of retribution."
The prelate, however, said the "men who are now being charged could just be pawns" even as he expressed hope that the new development will "hopefully bring the truth out."
"We would like to know who is behind the killing, who gave the order," Bishop Bagaforo told ucanews.com.
State prosecutor Peter Ong said at least 30 witnesses, "who are very spontaneous in their accounts," have already expressed willingness to testify.
"They are not afraid, they are willing to testify," said Ong.
He said Father Tentorio was "shot ten times" by members of the paramilitary group Bagani.
"The murder was planned seven days before the execution," he told a media briefing. He said investigators had ruled out a "political angle" in the killing of the priest.
"You have no reason to kill a person who is not a combatant," Ong said, adding that the attack on the priest was "plain murder."
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights group Karapatan, however, said Father Tentorio was a victim of an "extrajudicial killing" and "was targeted in line with the state’s counter-insurgency program."
Palabay said the killing of the priest was "an act to silence progressive groups and individuals who work for comprehensive and meaningful societal change."
"The government’s denial of political motive behind Father Tentorio’s death is meant to evade accountability," said Palabay.
The Italian priest was a known environmental activist and had spoken out against mining operations in Arakan town and nearby areas.
Nardy Sabino of the Promotion of Church People’s Response said the development in the Tentorio case "strengthens claims that the military is behind the killings of other churchmen."
"It reveals a pattern of how they silence activist-priests," said Sabino, secretary-general of the ecumenical church group.
"What they did to Father Tentorio was the same thing they did to Father Marcelito Paez," he added.
Father Paez, known for his human rights and social justice advocacies, was shot dead by gunmen on Dec. 4.
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