Updated at 2:30 a.m. E.T. on 2017-07-15
Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino will be charged over a bungled anti-terror raid that left 44 police commandos dead in a southern town two years ago, a special government prosecutor said Friday.
There was probable cause to indict Aquino and two of his former top police generals – Police Chief Alan Purisima and Special Action Force head Getulio Napenas – for criminal negligence in the botched operation that targeted a militant hideout in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said.
The Jan. 25, 2015 raid killed Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), but it led to the biggest single-day combat loss for government forces in recent memory. It also dented Aquino’s popularity and affected peace talks with Muslim rebels, political analysts said.
Aquino and Purisima allegedly launched the mission – codenamed Oplan Exodus – without the knowledge of other police and military officials, Purisima, at the time, was also under suspension for an unrelated corruption case.
Aquino, at the very least, has been found guilty of “giving pseudo legal power to a suspended official,” the ombudsman said in a statement. Both men also exchanged mobile phone messages at the height of the operation, a clear sign that “the suspended police chief played a major role in the botched operation,” Morales alleged.
“Certainly a public officer who is under preventive suspension is barred from performing any public functions and from meddling into the affairs of the government,” she said. “In other words, Purisima would not have been placed in such a position of continuing to conduct himself, in relation to Oplan Exodus, in a manner as if he was not under preventive suspension at that time, from his position as PNP chief, were it not for the complicity and influence of President Aquino.”
Aquino and the officials face six years in prison, if convicted.
But Aquino’s spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, said the former president and his legal team had been informed of the ombudsman’s charge and would appeal the initial findings.
“An initial reading shows that there may have been a misappreciation of some facts surrounding the incident, leading to some erroneous conclusions,” Valte said. “He (Aquino) will seek to clarify the same through the motion for reconsideration.”
Outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino (center) talks to President-elect Rodrigo Duterte (left) before Duterte’s swearing-in ceremony at Malacanang Palace in Manila, June 30, 2016. [AFP]
Bad day at Mamasapano
The top-secret operation was launched without the knowledge of other security officials, and only Aquino and two police officials knew about the plan. About 400 highly-trained police commandos took part in the operation, which was aimed at neutralizing Marwan, who had a bounty of U.S. $5 million on his head offered by the American government.
Mamasapano, the site of the raid, was an area controlled by fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim separatist group that had signed a peace treaty with Manila the previous year.
The gunbattle lasted several hours and resulted in the deaths of 44 commandos, after they were ensnared in a firefight with MILF guerrillas.
MILF commanders later testified at a Senate inquiry into the incident that they were not told of the government operation, and, fearing an assault by outside forces other than the police, they fought back. Had the government informed them of its operation, the MILF said, it would have helped arrest the wanted terrorist.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.
This update clarifies an earlier version that said former Philippine President Benigno Aquino has been charged. Formal charges have not been filed against Aquino, even though the special government prosecutor said she would recommend filing of charges against the country's former leader.