Benjaline Hernandez: Campus Journalist and Human Rights Defender

Nov. 21, 2013

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by RONALYN V. OLEA

(Editor’s note : In observance of the International Day to End Impunity, we are publishing this article on slain campus journalist Benjaline Hernandez from the book “Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances: Impunity in the Criminal Justice System” of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in April 2011. The author is editor of bulatlat.com and colleague of Hernandez in the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. Today, November 21, would have been Benjaline’s 34th birthday.)

On April 5, 2002, Benjaline Hernandez was about to take lunch with four Lumads in Sitio Bukatol, Barangay Kinawayan, Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, when state agents strafed the hut where they were staying.

Hernandez, deputy secretary-general of Karapatan-Southern Mindanao and vice president for Mindanao of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, was in the area for follow up documentation of the Tababa massacre that took place the previous year, also in Arakan Valley.

For Beng Hernandez
Ronalyn V. Olea

(Originally published in bulatlat.com last April 5, 2013 during the 11th death anniversary of Benjaline ‘Beng’ Hernandez.) 

MANILA –For the past decade, I have not attempted to write a personal note about her until today, the 11th anniversary of her death. I had always been overwhelmed by sadness and pain.
I still miss her. There are times I wonder how would it be if she were alive. We would have shared stories about motherhood, and politics, of course.
Politics brought us together. At the National Council meeting of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), she reported the accomplishments of the Davao chapter and I was impressed. And she was also the loudest to cheer when I presented the CEGP-NCR report. Our colleagues said we were members of “Mutual Admiration Club.” We were instant friends after that.
Now, I want the world to know how wonderful she was as a person.
Beng was a bubbly person. Her giggles were contagious. She laughed at the slightest joke.
She was a good leader, one who had charisma. Under her leadership, the local chapter in Davao and eventually, the chapters in Mindanao, were active in the campaign for press freedom and other people’s issues.
She was a very honest person. When she was campaigning for the position of vice president for Mindanao at the CEGP National Congress in Benguet in 2000, she admitted, matter-of-factly, that she shifted from Accountancy to Literature because she had difficulty in Math.
She was resourceful. Every national activity of the CEGP, she would bring items from Davao to sell so she and the other delegates from Mindanao would have enough money for transportation.
As a friend, she was thoughtful. She would send me anything — a shirt, a bracelet she made, an artwork by a progressive artist–whenever there was an opportunity.
We could talk for hours — from love life to literature to politics.
I last saw her in 2001, a few months after the ouster of then President Joseph Estrada. Her eyes were glowing as she talked about her decision to live among the Lumads in Arakan Valley. She talked about getting married to her dearest.
Before parting in April that year, she repeatedly asked us to go to Davao for the next CEGP Congress scheduled the following year.
And we did go to Davao for the CEGP National Congress and that gathering became a tribute to Beng. We staged protest actions against the military for the murder of a fine young woman who dedicated her life for the Filipino people.
Justice remains elusive as the main suspect — Sgt. Antonio Torilla — was allowed to post bail. This despite a resolution issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in July 2010 holding the Philippine government responsible for her death. Torilla is still active with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Impunity continues to reign in this country.
Today, I received tragic news that a military unit strafed houses of civilians in Mabini, Compostela Valley. A boy died and two other children were wounded. The AFP issued a statement, saying there was an encounter with the New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas. The victim was killed in the same manner Beng was murdered. And the military uttered the same lies after men in uniform shot her at close range twice.
If it is any consolation, I know that Beng would be happy to know that her mother and her siblings have continued the struggle for justice and human rights. I came to know them after her death. Memories of her brought us together.
Every time I would feel emotionally exhausted or helpless in reporting cases of human-rights violations, I think of her and other victims of extrajudicial killings and abuses and I know that I must continue, until my hands bleed. (davaotoday.com)

Without warning, members of the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu), led by Master Sergeant Antonio Torilla of the 7th Airborne Battalion of the 12th Special Forces Company of the Philippine Army started shooting the hut. Hernandez and her companions jumped out of the window.

Based on the account of the sole survivor, Hernandez raised her arms and cried, “Have pity, sir, we are civilians.” But the soldiers ignored her plea and shot her at close range. Her three companions, Vivian Andrade, Labaon Sinunday, and Crisanto Amora, who were all farmers, were also killed. Only one other farmer, Alindro Pacana, managed to hide behind the bushes and survive.

The autopsy by Dr. Reynaldo Romero, medico-legal officer of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), shows that Hernandez suffered gunshot wounds on her right breast and her head, causing massive fracture of her skull. She appeared to have been shot at close range, disputing the military’s claims that the incident was a legitimate encounter with members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Torilla had earlier claimed that his men recovered an armalite rifle, a Thompson, one .38 caliber revolver, and subversive documents from the victims.

The Commission on Human Rights upheld the findings of Romero and concluded thus:

“…the pieces of circumstantial evidence provided by the findings of the NBI medico-legal officer Dr. Reynaldo Romero and the witnesses…suffice to establish probable cause for murder against Sgt. Antonio Torilla, Leo Indagacan, Edwin Arandilla, Edgar Alojado, Bernade Abanilla and eleven other members of Cafgu whose identity have not yet been divulged.”

The Long Search for Justice

Hernandez’s parents Benjamin and Evangeline filed multiple murder charges against the perpetrators and requested the trial be held in Davao City where the family lived.

On Oct. 30, 2003, the Office of the City Prosecutor in Davao City issued a seven-page resolution calling for the filing of charges for the killings of Hernandez, Andrade, and Amora.

The panel indicted Torilla and Cpl. Randolph Tamayo of the Army’s 12th Special Forces Company, along with Leo Indagacan, Didok Anarna, and another unidentified member of the Cafgu. The panel cleared the other respondents, Pfc. Celso Padama and Cafgu members Arandilla, Alojado, and Abanilla, for lack of evidence. It also cleared the soldiers and militiamen of responsibility for the death of the fourth victim, Sinunday, saying his death was a result of a legitimate encounter.

Torilla was briefly detained at the Amas Provincial Jail in Cotabato. In March 2004, his counsel filed a petition for bail before Branch 17 of the Regional Trial Court in Kidapawan City. The court granted the petition of the accused. Torilla remains in active service of the Philippine Army.
In March 2006, finding the legal proceedings practically ineffective and prolonged, the family, through Karapatan and the International Association of People’s Lawyers, submitted the case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) which monitors compliance by State parties with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). At that time, the local court had not yet issued a decision on the case.

The Philippine government signed the ICCPR in January 1986 and is a signatory to the Optional Protocol on the ICCPR. The Philippines is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

UN Decision: A Ray of Hope

Eight years since her death, Hernandez’s family found a ray of hope when the UNHRC issued its decision in August 2010. The Committee found the Philippine government guilty of violating Article 6 of the Covenant which states, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

The UNHRC noted: “Despite the fact that bail is not normally granted in murder cases, it was granted in this case. Subpoenas for the attendance of the military witnesses as hostile witnesses for the prosecution were disobeyed or ignored x x x[R]emedies have been unreasonably prolonged and will prove to be ineffective.”

The UNHRC also noted that though over eight years have elapsed since the killing took place, Philippine authorities have, apart from the pending and overdue case against Torilla and a few others, neither prosecuted nor brought to justice anyone else in connection with these events.

The UNHRC admonished the Philippine government that it is under an obligation to take effective measures to ensure that the criminal proceedings are expeditiously completed, that all the perpetrators are prosecuted.

The UNHRC also observed that while the Philippine government denied that the killing of Hernandez was attributable to its military organization, it did not present any convincing evidence that the main suspect was acting in his own interest. The Committee further held, “Nor did the State party submit convincing information on any effective measures it undertook, in compliance with its obligation to protect the right to life under article 6, paragraph 1, to prevent and refrain from arbitrary deprivation of life.”

Continuing Injustice

A few days after Hernandez’s mother Evangeline received a copy of the UNHRC decision, she learned that the local court in Kidapawan acquitted the main suspect of the crime. Evangeline, now spokesperson of Hustisya!, an organization of families of victims of extrajudicial killings, is frustrated. “Instead of complying with the views of the UNHRC, the Philippine government continues to deny us justice,” she said. “Torilla roams freely in various camps such as Fort Magsaysay and Fort Bonifacio.”

The UNHRC report had also said that the victim’s family must be granted full reparation, including adequate compensation, and the State party must submit within 180 days information about the measures taken to give effect to the UNHRC’s views.

As of this writing, the Philippine government has not complied with any of these recommendations.

(davaotoday.com)

Read more past articles on Benjaline Hernandez here and here.

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