The Court of Appeals Thursday stood pat on its earlier decision affirming Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales’ order: Fire 10 Navy officers linked to the 1995 murder of then 24-year-old Ensign Philip Pestaño.
He studied at the Sacred Heart School in Cebu, then enrolled at Ateneo de Manila where he was an honor student. Pestaño joined the Philippine Navy after graduating from the Philippine Military Academy in 1993. He was posted as cargomaster for the Navy ship BRP Bacolod City.
Among other things, he refused to load 14,000 board feet of illegal logs, weapons and shabu. For that, he got threatening phone calls. “‘Kawawa ang bayan,’ Pestaño told anxious parents, who pleaded with him to resign from the Navy,” the late James Reuter, SJ, recalled in his column, “At 3 A.M.”
As the story goes, part of the shipment turned out to be “a gift” from then Gov. Gerry Matba for Admiral Pio Carranza. “Orders from above” overruled Pestaño. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources certified that the logs were inspected in Zamboanga—when the boat was already docked in Cavite. The logs vanished but spurious clearances appeared.
Pestaño was found in his cabin with a gunshot wound on his right temple after the ship meandered on an hour-and-a-half trip from Cavite to dock at Roxas Boulevard. Normally, that trip takes 25 minutes. Logbook entries vanished.
“Suicide,” ruled the Navy within 24 hours, sans investigation. Nonsense, objected
Pestaño’s PMA classmates, who pointed to the absence of powder burns on the body and also offered testimony.
Archive the Pestaño case as the evidence is “patchy,” ordered then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto. As Marcos military prosecutor, Desierto hounded senators Benigno Aquino Jr., Jose Diokno and other dictatorship victims. Up to his death, senator Lorenzo Tañada refused to even address Desierto directly.
Ombudsman Desierto “will be devoting a considerable amount of his official time protecting his hide,” constitutional scholar Joaquin Bernas, SJ, predicted then. “His image is shattered… and it is impossible for him to function effectively…”
And that’s where the Pestaño case was boxed into—until the Senate committees on human rights and national defense stepped in. Led by the late Senate president and former chief justice Marcelo Fernan, the committees held eight meetings between May 5 and Sept. 3, 1997. Members inspected Pestaño’s cabin.
Senate Report No. 800 concluded: “Pestaño… was bludgeoned unconscious and then shot to death somewhere else in the vessel. His body was moved and laid on the bed where it was found. Identify the persons who participated in this attempt to fake suicide…. The clear absence of blood spatters, bone fragments or other human tissues is physical evidence more eloquent than a hundred witnesses…”
Then Sen. Fred Lim did just that in a later privilege speech. He fingered Lt. Carlito Amoroso (PMA Class 1994) a close-in security for Admiral Carranza. Amoroso was on board BRP Bacolod City as an “unmanifested passenger.” Lim lashed at Ensign Joselito Colico who admitted, before the Senate, that he removed the magazine from the .45-caliber pistol and wiped off fingerprints. Both are among those cashiered by the Court of Appeals.
The ensign’s parents, Felipe and Evelyn, gave up knocking at then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez’s door. “She has not agreed to see us,” they said.
Gutierrez added “sting to injury,” noted then UP College of Law dean and now Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan. She dismissed the complaint after Pestaño’s parents signed the impeachment complaint against her. Gutierrez quit when the House of Representatives impeached her.
In 2011, President Aquino appointed former Supreme Court justice Conchita Carpio Morales as Ombudsman. That same year, Morales reversed Gutierrez’s 2009 decision shredding the murder and administrative misconduct charges against the 10 Navy men.
Pestaño’s parents also sought the United Nations’ help. In March 2011, the UN Human Rights Commission (UN-HRC) wrote: Despite denials by authorities, Pestaño was not a suicide but the victim of homicide. “Violation of Ensign Pestaño’s right to life and to redress of grievance… is directly attributable to the State in party (Republic of the Philippines).”
“No one has been prosecuted for the crime—after (more than a decade). It had been committed with impunity.” The Philippines should “undertake enforceable remedies…. and inform the UN within 180 days.”
Within four months of Pestaño’s death, comrades disappeared in “mysterious circumstances,” the UN-HRC in Geneva found.
PO2 Zosimo Villanueva tipped Pestaño “on drugs stashed in 20 sacks of rice aboard the ship.” Then Villanueva was “lost at sea” but his three companions survived. Only a bloodied speedboat was found.
PO3 Fidel Tagaytay was BRP Bacolod City’s radio operator. Tagaytay agreed to brief the provost marshal about people who had sneaked aboard. He vanished when summoned to testify. Wife Leonila’s efforts to trace his whereabouts were brushed off by the claim that Tagaytay was “absent without leave.”
Ensign Alvin Farone contacted Marissa, Pestaño’s sister, saying he wanted “to tell what really happened to Philip.” He died before he could do so.
Firing is half of the job. What about the restitution? Zacchaeus told the Master he would repay fourfold what he stole. And what compensation can we, as a people of notoriously short memories, accord to a young officer for standing up to what was right?
Rename the Navy headquarters on Roxas Boulevard after Ensign Philip Pestaño for a start. What is your viewpoint?