Mon, Nov 13, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Feature: Rights activists routinely silenced

AFP , MALOBAGO, PHILIPPINES

Sonia Santa Rosa and her family gather in front of their house as her youngest son Karlo holds a portrait of their slain father, Protestant pastor Isaias Santa Rosa. A group of masked gunmen abducted Santa Rosa and killed him. More than 700 activists have been killed in the Philippines since 2001, according to human rights groups.

PHOTO: AFP

Peasant leader and protestant pastor Isaias Santa Rosa was enjoying the company of his children on a balmy August night when 20 heavily armed men barged into his home and forcibly snatched him.

Thirty minutes later he was dead, his bullet-riddled body dumped on the muddy banks of a creek less than 100m from his modest two-bedroom home in Malobago, a quiet, impoverished village in the eastern Bicol region.

Santa Rosa's case gained little attention in the national press, his death only a statistic added to the more than 700 activists gunned down by so-called paramilitary "death squads" in the Philippines in the past five years alone.

But what made it different was that it offers the first hard evidence that the military was involved in the killings -- one of the abductors was accidentally killed in the burst of gunfire that also felled Santa Rosa.

An ID card in the gunman's pocket identified him as Lordger Pastrana, a member of the army's intelligence group who was out on a "secret mission" to liquidate leftist dissidents.

The circumstances surrounding Pastrana's death remain cloudy, but it appears he was accidentally shot by his own men in the confusion that followed. There was a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, with police saying the soldier only happened to pass after visiting a girl he was courting.

But they could not explain why he ended up lying dead on the creek bank beside the pastor.

"The street lights were put out and there were heavy footsteps in the rice field. They stormed the house and pointed guns at us, including my four children. They hogtied Isaias and were forcing him to confess that he was a communist rebel," Santa Rosa's widow, Sonia said, her normal steely resolve giving way to sobs.

"He was isolated in one bedroom and we could hear muffled cries of anguish. He was being tortured, there was blood on the floor. I remember Pastrana telling us to cooperate and we will not be harmed," she said.

"My husband was then taken out and there was a burst of gunfire. Minutes later, we found his lifeless body and near him was the dead soldier," she said. "My children are now fatherless and in shock."

How Santa Rosa could be mistaken for an insurgent is not exactly clear to Sonia, who met the mild mannered pastor in the 1980s when he first arrived here to head a chapel.

The pastor would later devote his time to organizing grain funding programs for farmers, gaining the respect of the community. In a local gazette, he wrote scathing remarks about some of the policies of President Gloria Arroyo, but he never espoused violence or armed struggle.

"He has never held a gun in his life. His pen was his weapon. True, he may have railed against policies of the Arroyo government, but who hasn't? That does not make him a rebel targeted for killing," she said.

A report by the Commission on Human Rights after a fact finding mission said there is "legal ground" to prosecute Pastrana's commanding officers for the incident.

So far, a special commission created by Arroyo to investigate political killings has not interviewed the widow or other survivors.

None of Pastrana's superiors were available for comment, but a senior military officer in the region said military intelligence were known to monitor "groups of interest" -- a euphemism for those they suspect as fronting for the communist New People's Army (NPA), which has been waging a Maoist insurgency since 1969.

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