DOJ junks murder raps vs. 17 cops over deaths of two 'Bloody Sunday' victims

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 31) — A Department of Justice (DOJ) panel of prosecutors dismissed the murder complaint against 17 police officers over the killing of fisherfolk activists Ariel and Ana Mariz Evangelista in Batangas during the so-called Bloody Sunday raids in 2021.

According to the resolution dated Dec. 5 last year and released to the media Friday, the evidence was "insufficient to prove the culpability of all the respondents."

The Evangelista couple was among the nine activists killed in simultaneous search warrant operations conducted in Calabarzon provinces on March 9, 2021, dubbed Bloody Sunday.

In January this year, a DOJ panel also junked the murder complaint on 17 other policemen for the killing of labor leader Manuel Asuncion in Cavite.

Rosenda Lemita, mother of Ana Mariz and mother-in-law of Ariel, and the National Bureau of Investigation-Death Investigation Division filed the complaint before the DOJ on Jan. 14, 2022. In their complaint, the NBI found that the police officers who carried out the operation had a "deliberate intent to kill."

"Here, however, complainants only made a sweeping allegation of conspiracy allegedly because respondents were present at, or near, the place of the incident. This alone is not sufficient to establish conspiracy," state prosecutors said in their 26-page resolution.

The couple died from multiple gunshot wounds. The DOJ panel said the bullets recovered from their bodies came from a caliber 5.56mm gun which was not police-issued and "not even identified."

It added that cartridges and spent bullets from the house where they were shot were fired from two caliber .45 pistols — firearms, it said, that were found in the possession of the Evangelista couple.

The DOJ panel also noted that of the police officers named as respondents, two were only near the house but did not fire a shot; the investigator-on-case and the designated arresting officer were still walking towards the location; while the rest claimed they only acted as perimeter security and blocking force.

Due to insufficient evidence, state prosecutors cannot also answer who fired at the Evangelista couple.

The couple's 10-year-old son and some witnesses said the two were dragged by uniformed personnel to a nearby house where successive gunshots were heard. They also said that the couple had no guns.

But for the DOJ panel, of the two versions of the story of the killing, "respondents' narration is more consistent with the documentary evidence submitted."

It noted that Ariel fired upon the operating team during the implementation of search warrants, which was consistent with police findings that both of his hands were positive for gun powder nitrates.

"Furthermore, even assuming that the evidence points to other respondent/s as responsible for the killing of spouses Evangelista, respondent/s cannot be held liable for murder," the resolution read.

It continued: "In fact, were it not for the violent actions initiated by the spouses, the operating teams would not have reacted and retaliated, as they were at the subject house primarily to serve and implement the search warrants. Thus, the allegation of extra-judicial killing is wanting."

Rights groups dismayed

Defend Southern Tagalog, an alliance of human rights victims and human rights defenders, expressed "strong indignation" over the junking of the murder raps.

"Decision is a step back from justice and reeks of the now-disputed presumption of regularity," it added.

The National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) also said it was dismayed by the dismissal of the murder complaint.

"With their discredited 'nanlaban' narrative taken at face value, the police were gratuitously presumed to have regularly performed their official duties and were once again gifted with impunity," the NUPL said.

"This regrettable development in the much vaunted Bloody Sunday cases, which the government promised to closely investigate under its AO (Administrative Order) 35 mechanism, belies its pompous claim that it is rolling out 'real justice in real time' under an 'effective and responsive justice system.' It is certainly a grave disservice to the victims," it added.