A Philippine court convicted 66 suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and sentenced them Friday to up to 40 years in prison for the mass abduction of Christian students and teachers on a southern island in 2000, including a Catholic priest who was tortured and murdered, officials said.
The Regional Trial Court Branch 216 in Pasig city, a suburb of Manila, acquitted 20 other Abu Sayyaf suspects due to lack of evidence in the case of the kidnapping of the 52 students, teachers and the priest on Basilan island 18 years ago, authorities said. Three teachers as well as five of the students were also killed by the Abu Sayyaf, as the military attacked the gunmen’s position after negotiations failed two months later.
Abu Sayyaf leaders Khadaffy Janjalani, Aldam Tilao and Isnilon Hapilon were among those originally charged for the mass abduction. Janjalani and Tilao were killed in military offensives while at-large years ago, and Hapilon was killed in October 2017 at the end of a five-month battle by government forces to break a militant siege in southern Marawi city. At the time of his death, Hapilon was also recognized as the leader of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in the Philippines.
According to the 391-page charge sheet, the men were “ranking officers and members of the Abu Sayyaf” who seized the teachers and school children. They were held captive in the hinterlands of Basilan, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the south.
Father Rhoel Gallardo, of the Claretian Missionaries, was among the dozens kidnapped together back in March 2000. Troops later found his body. It bore signs of torture, with his nails plucked out from his hands and feet. There were also three bullets in his back.
In the same year, the little-known Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) grabbed international headlines when it seized 21 European and Asian hostages in a daring cross-border raid into a nearby Malaysian island, which was a hotspot for tourists.
All the hostages were released in batches in a span of months after payments of millions of dollars in ransom, according to the military and government negotiators.
‘Angered by this injustice’
On Friday, no court representatives were free to talk to the press, but outside a heavily guarded prison facility in Camp Bagong Diwa near Manila, the suspects’ relatives said they felt crushed by the verdict.
Amirah Lidasan, a leader of Muslim human rights group Suara Bangsamoro, slammed the court’s decision.
She said a majority of those convicted were innocent civilians who were forcibly arrested in 2001 when ex-president and now House Speaker Gloria Arroyo declared a state of lawlessness on Basilan.
“They were just innocent civilians who were picked up,” Lidasan said. “We are angered by this injustice perpetuated by a court which disregarded evidence that was presented as proof that they were used as fall guys for the Abu Sayyaf.”
For nearly two decades, she said, the suspects were detained at the behest of the U.S. government, which had offered monetary rewards for any Abu Sayyaf capture.
“These innocent Muslims were given aliases that were used by the ASG to justify their detention,” Lidasan said.
Earlier this week, another Abu Sayyaf militant, Hasim Alibasa Radjuli, was convicted by another Manila court over a 2001 raid at Island Garden City on Samal island, in Davao del Norte province, that resulted in the deaths of two resort workers. The suspect was arrested by police in 2006.
A judge said Radjuli was found guilty of murder for the death of Pearl Farm Beach Resort security guard Jimmy Culam. At the same time, the defendant was found guilty of homicide for the killing of another resort employee, Rolando Jara.
In a 14-page decision dated Dec. 3, Judge Marivic Vitor of Regional Trial Court Branch 266 rejected Radjuli’s alibi that he was in Jolo, Sulu when the attack happened.
In its decision, the court said it believed the testimony of a former Abu Sayyaf member who had identified Radjuli as among his accomplices in the crime.
“There is no room to doubt this identification of the accused as he was not a mere stranger identifying another stranger,” the court said.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It has been engaged mostly in banditry, kidnappings and bombings. The group is believed to still be holding three foreigners and three Filipino hostages.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato city, Philippines contributed to this report.