Philippine gov’t extends legal aid to 8 charged in Sabah

By Allan Nawal, Michael Lim Ubac | Source: ANN

Malacanang will extend consular and legal assistance to the eight men charged with terrorism in Sabah despite doubts expressed by the sultanate of Sulu over their citizenship.

Malaysia, which insists the eight are Filipino citizens, has granted the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur access to them, said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte in a radio interview Saturday.

Abraham Idjirani, spokesperson for the sultanate, claimed on Friday that the accused were not Filipinos but Malaysians.

While this issue remains to be clarified, Malaysian Gen. Khalid Abu Bakar announced the arrest of four more persons associated with the sultan’s rebellion, including an alleged top commander of the Sulu royal army and his wife.

Khalid, Malaysian police deputy inspector who is leading the operations against sultanate forces, told reporters in Sabah that the couple were captured before dawn yesterday in the suspects’ hideaway “in a marshy area of Semporna.”

Khalid did not name the alleged commander and his wife.  He added that a “collaborator” of the two suspects was also nabbed.

Khalid described the latter as the son of a former Tanduo village chief, who is a “Sabahan of Filipino descent.”

Sabah’s Radio 24 quoted Khalid as saying yesterday’s arrests had “weakened the terrorists” because they had lost a leader as well as their coordinator for food and supplies.

Khalid said the fresh arrests had brought to 408 the number of people arrested as Operasi Daulat (Operation Sovereignty) entered its 19th day. About 111 were being investigated for terrorism and rebellion against the Malaysian king, while the rest were being held for violating restrictions imposed in several areas.

Since the operation was launched, Malaysian reports said 63 suspected Sulu gunmen had been killed while the Malaysian side suffered 10 deaths—eight of them policemen. Only 38 bodies, however, have been retrieved, Khalid was quoted as saying.

He said Operasi Daulat would continue until the security of Sabah was ascertained.

Malaysian police chief Insp. Gen. Ismail Omar earlier said the Malaysian security forces were “winning the battle.”

“We (the police) believe the enemies are now under pressure as their comrades have been arrested and are being prosecuted in court,” Bernama quoted Ismail as saying.

Eight of the arrested suspects have been charged with terrorism and rebellion before the Tawau court and could face the death penalty.

The investigation of over 100 others was still ongoing. They are detained under Malaysia’s Security Offense and Special Measures Act which allows the state to hold a suspect for 28 days even without charges.

President Aquino on Thursday ordered the Philippine embassy in KL to provide lawyers for the eight Filipinos already charged.

“It’s automatic for us to provide legal assistance to any of our countrymen facing charges regardless if we believe in their cause or not,” said the President.

In Zamboanga City, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) is working for the temporary liberty of 38 alleged followers of the sultan of Sulu who were arrested by Philippine authorities as they returned to the country from Sabah.

A local court set bail of 60,000 pesos (US$1,500) for each of the suspects, but PAO chief Persida Acosta, in a phone interview, said she would ask the court to lower the bail to 3,000 pesos ($73).

Those arrested are detained at Camp Juan Magluyan Naval Station in Panglima Sugala town in Tawi-Tawi.  Philippine authorities said they recovered six firearms and assorted bladed weapons from the suspects.

Romulo Ranoco, father of Jonathan Ranoco (one of the 38), told Acosta their family had no money to post bail for their son. “We don’t even have money to go to Tawi-Tawi to visit my son, what more raising money for bail,” Ranoco, who lives in Zamboanga City, said.

“We don’t know where to go for help. My son is not a terrorist. He just joined the sultan’s group because he wanted to work in Malaysia. He had no intention of joining any war. My son was not trained to fight,” Romulo said.

Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said that not all of the 38 were considered followers of the sultan. “Some of them are not even Tausugs (of Sulu),” he said.

An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 undocumented Filipinos are believed to be living in Lahad Datu, a town in the east of Sabah that is the center of “Operasi Daulat.”

Followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III began a quest on February 12 to revive the family’s claim over Sabah, surprising both the Philippines and Malaysia. A two-week standoff turned into a bloody clash between the sultan’s forces and Malaysian police.

A Philippine mission in Lahad Datu is currently handing out application forms for travel documents to Filipinos who want to leave Sabah and return home.  But so far only about 100 have availed themselves of this documentation offer. With reports from Julie S. Alipala in Zamboanga City  and Nikko Dizon in Manila

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