The killing of the country’s top botanist, Leonardo L. Co, 56, in Tongonan, Ormoc, Leyte last Monday by Philippine Army soldiers who opened fire on civilians, may be “another case of shoot first, ask questions later,” the human rights group KARAPATAN said.
“Even as we grieve and commiserate with the families of the victims, we are calling for a thorough, diligent investigation of the incident where soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) under their commanding officer Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan are involved. The incident led to the death not only of the country’s top botanist, Leonardo Co but also of two (2) others, namely Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of EDC-Environmental Management Division, and Julius Borromeo, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association (ToFA),” Karapatan acting secretary general Jigs Clamor said.
Leonardo L. Co was a specialist in plant taxonomy and ethnobotany. He was serving as a biodiversity consultant of Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp. (EDC) and was gathering specimen seedlings of endangered trees with a five-member team of civilians when shot at, according to Manuel Paete, EDC resident manager.
Co’s two other companions, Policarpio Balute, a member of ToFA, and Roniño Gibe, a contractual forester with EDC’s corporate social responsibility department, survived.
“How can Lt. Col. Tutaan call this a ‘legitimate encounter’ between his troops and supposed New People’s Army rebels when the fatalities are clearly civilians? We doubt seriously that there was ever a crossfire,” Clamor asked.
“Tutaan calls the incident unfortunate. We call it condemnable,” Clamor added.
“Tutaan even tried to justify his men’s actions by saying that the visibility in the area was hampered by thick foliage. But why shoot when their target is not even clear in the first place? That is simply ridiculous,” Clamor said.
“The problem really is the orientation and training of Philippine soldiers given by US advisers. Obama and Aquino are turning the Philippines into another Iraq and Afghanistan. This goes to show that even if there are rules of engagement to follow in the conduct of war, the AFP has only paid lip-service to that in their so-called ‘human rights’ handbook,” Clamor said.
Co was the president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, museum researcher at the University of the Philippines Institute of Biological Sciences (UP IBS), curator of the Jose Vera Santos Herbarium, worked with the Community Health, Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Administrative Region (Chestcore) based in Baguio City and known for his selfless devotion in helping communities about medicinal plants for their own primary health care.
“First, they illegally arrested, tortured and detained 43 community health workers. Now they may just have killed a top-rate botanist and a forest ranger. This puts the AFP’s interest on taking care of the environment, people’s health, or the most fundamental right to human life in very serious questions,” Karapatan said. ###
PUBLIC INFORMATION DESK
Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights
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KARAPATAN is an alliance of human rights organizations and programs, human rights desks and committees of people’s organizations, and individual advocates committed to the defense and promotion of people’s rights and civil liberties. It monitors and documents cases of human rights violations, assists and defends victims and conducts education, training and campaign. It was established in 1995.