Thursday, 25 March 2010

24 private armed groups dismantled; body seeks longer term

Gerard S de la Peña

THE PRESIDENTIAL body tasked to dismantle private armed groups has so far disbanded a fifth of identified private armies since its creation last December.

With concerns that the remaining armed groups would persist even after the May elections, the Independent Commission Against Private Armies is seeking an extension of its term beyond the polls.

The commission’s term ends on March 31, the deadline set for the submission of recommendations to the military and the police on how to proceed with the dismantling of private armies.

Commissioner Herman Z. Basbaño told a briefing yesterday that the Philippine National Police (PNP) has disbanded 24 private armed groups as of last Monday of the total 122 identified groups nationwide.

Details on the groups and their politician benefactors were not immediately available, Mr. Basbaño said, but added that the arrested groups were "not small time."

"We are sure these are not the typical small-time private armed groups based on the initial reports given by the PNP. These are coming from the areas that are considered hot spots," he said.

"The PNP was telling us from the information that they have arrested people who are in the middle level up to the higher hierarchy of some of these private armed groups."

So-called election hot spots, or security-risk areas, that are home to private armies include Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, Masbate, Abra and Nueva Ecija.

The commission, created on Dec. 8, 2009 through Administrative Order 275, defines private armed groups as those having firearms with the aim of intimidating, coercing and sowing fear in favor of certain politicians.

The Palace order was an offshoot of a carnage last Nov. 23 in Ampatuan town, in Maguindanao province that involved 57 individuals en route to the filing of a gubernatorial candidate’s certificate of candidacy.

The mass murder highlighted tension between the then reigning Ampatuan clan against the Mangudadatu family, former administration allies whose relationship turned sour after the Ampatuans were challenged in the Maguindanao leadership.

Principal suspect Datu Unsay Mayor Andal U. Ampatuan, Jr., is now facing murder charges at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court. He is detained at the National Bureau of Investigation.

His father, Andal, Sr., former Maguindanao governor, and brother, Zaldy, former autonomous Muslim region governor, are detained in Davao City on rebellion charges.

The charges were filed after clan leaders allegedly refused to be arrested during the one-week imposition of martial law in the province in early December.


Mr. Basbaño said some members of private armies were charged with illegal possession of firearms.

"There is no law under the penal code or the special code punishing private armies or its maintenance so we have drafted a bill to punish private armies. I understand that the PNP will put full support behind the bill, maybe [in] the next Congress," retired Court of Appeals justice Monina Arevalo-Zenarosa, committee chairman, said in the same briefing.

Ms. Zenarosa said the commission may even ask the next administration to ask Congress to pass a law institutionalizing the body.

"We see the need of extending our term because after the elections, that is when most problems would come in. To whom they would turn to if they have no one to address their problems? We are even recommending that this be made permanent," she said.

Congress is on break and would only resume session on May 31-June 4 to canvass the results of the presidential and vice-presidential elections. It would also proclaim the winners in the same session.

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