Philippines: Dissent without action
Fifty journalists were detained while covering the coup attempt in the Philippines during a court hearing on the officers’ mutiny of 2003. Ellen Tordesillas was there Thursday morning. The Makati City hall premises were swarming with military personnel. Aside from the usual security escorts of the Magdalo officers, there were those from Camp Capinpin in […]
07 Dec 07

Fifty journalists were detained while covering the coup attempt in the Philippines during a court hearing on the officers’ mutiny of 2003. Ellen Tordesillas was there
Thursday morning. The Makati City hall premises were swarming with military personnel. Aside from the usual security escorts of the Magdalo officers, there were those from Camp Capinpin in Tanay, who brought Brigadier General Danny Lim to testify on the agreement forged between President Malacañang’s representatives and the Oakwood mutineers of July 2003.

Arriving late at the hearing last Thursday, it was standing room only. I recognised prominent guests such as former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Bishop Antonio Tobias, former UP president Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo. A number of the officers were standing on the aisle.

Marine Captain Nick Faeldon, who had to attend a court martial hearing earlier in the morning, came later and also stood near the door.

Except for Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who was in black shirt, all the accused wore combat uniform, like their guards. It was difficult to distinguish the guards from the guarded.

There was a five-minute break when Lim and Trillanes were escorted to the men’s room. When the hearing resumed it was the prosecution’s turn to cross examine Lim. Suddenly, Lt (s.g.) James Layug, who wore a black scarf, stood up, went to Lim and declared, “Nobody move.” He held Lim by the arm and led him quickly out of the courtroom. Everybody was stunned. Lim’s counsel Vicente Verdadero stood up and asked, “What’s happening? Where are they bringing my client?”

Pimentel said, “Who’s that officer? Bring him back here with the witness.”

Everything moved fast. Officers loaded Lim and Trillanes to the elevator while pushing media out of the lift.

The rest of the officers, with their guards, and media commandeered another lift.

Once all had met up on the ground floor, Lim and Trillanes, followed by their guards, marched on JP Rizal to Makati Avenue. Unaware of what was happening, people along JP Rizal were waving at Trillanes who asked them to join him and Lim against Gloria Arroyo for “a new life”.

In that more than 30-minute march to Manila Peninsula, I didn’t notice a single policeman.

A shot that shattered the glass door of the Makati Avenue entrance convinced the Manila Pen guards that it was useless resisting the marchers who had a more serious agenda that day.

It took some hours before someone from the government, in the person of Manila police chief Geary Barias, came, but he only got to the lobby. He was told he was not welcome. Lim and Trillanes had no intention of negotiating. He tried again and again to go up. On the third attempt, he was jeered by Trillanes’ supporters.

This must have really pricked Barias’ ego. He is alleged to have elbowed the senator in the chest when Trillanes and Lim were arrested. Reports from insiders in the CIDG, where the rebel officers are detained, said that Trillanes received more blows from PNP officers.

Senior Superintendent Jaime Calungsod, whose PMA class had adopted Lim, a West Pointer, was allowed into the Rizal Room on the second floor, which the officers used as a command post, but stayed only for a few minutes. Calungsod said nothing to the media.

Trillanes came down later and looked for the hotel manager to correct media reports that hotel guests were being held hostage.

At about 2pm someone delivered the arrest warrant against a number of officers for contempt of court issued by Judge Pimentel. Lt Armand Pontejos, who was manning the locked glass door, refused to receive the warrant, which the messenger was trying to push through the door. I asked the messenger to hold the document against the glass door while reporters copied the contents.

After the 3pm deadline set by the government for the officers to surrender, tension was building up. Apparently, the expected massive civilian and military support didn’t come. Television reported that the PNP’s Special Action Force (SAF) and army troops were preparing for an assault. Rebel officers would constantly look out through the glass window, searching for snipers.

Reporters were getting text messages from editors and friends of the government, telling them to vacate the hotel before the army forced their way in to arrest the rebels. Initially, we were about a hundred journalists covering the standoff from inside the hotel, limited to the corridor leading to the Rizal room.

When the warning came, some reporters left. A little over 20 of us stayed put. We talked among ourselves and agreed to link arms just in case we would be forcibly removed. We also gathered moistened table napkins, to counter the effects of tear gas. Some kind souls in the hotel gave us face towels. But those were not enough, so we borrowed pocket knives and started cutting the table cloths. We promised among ourselves that we would pay Manila Pen if they billed us for the table cloth which we used as gas masks.

Shortly before 5 pm, we heard gunshots. The rebels remained calm. They let us into the Rizal room. We could feel the building shake as the armoured personnel carrier repeatedly slammed the hotel door. Tear gas wafted through the room.

By then Lim and Trillanes announced to us that to save lives, they were leaving the hotel. “Like soldiers, we are going face this,” Trillanes said. Lim couldn’t hide his disappointment over the support that never came. “Dissent without action is consent,” he said.

We got information that snipers would fire at Lim and Trillanes once they came out of the hotel. “Let it be,” the two said.

We arranged ourselves in the room. TV camera crew and photographers positioned themselves near the door. Right behind them were Lim and Trillanes and other members of the media. Bishop Julio Labayen and others were in the last row.

When the fully armed, fully masked SAF pushed the door open, aiming their high-powered firearms at us, they were greeted by TV cameras as we shouted, “Media”. They went to another room, but finding it empty came back. They wanted to bring us out but we complained about stinging tear gas. One SAF member said, “Okay na, okay na.” One of us said, “Why don’t you remove your mask. Let’s see if you can say, “ok”.” One reporter went on air to appeal to the authorities to stop the tear gassing so we could all go down.

After a while, the SAF came back. First they grabbed Trillanes and Lim. Then they herded the rest of us out. They ordered us to raise our hands. Most people ignored the order.

As we went down the stairs, we were told to stay put because we would be brought to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan for “processing”. We all raised a howl and they explained that it’s standard procedure in a crime investigation. Then we were asked who were members of the military in civilian clothes. About two or three stood and they were hauled away. Then they asked, “Who is a member of ABB?” referring to the Alex Boncayao communist hit squad. Nobody stood up.

Then members of media were told move to the right side. They started handcuffing non-journalists. SAF’s General Santiago was apologetic as he was supervising the hand-tying of Francisco Nemenzo (the former president of the University of the Philippines). “I’m sorry, sir. I know that you have lectured me against suppression of human rights but I just have to do this.” Nemenzo kept silent.

Then it was the media’s turn to be handcuffed. We all protested. “We didn’t commit any crime!”, “Why, has Gloria Arroyo declared martial law?” CIDG NCR chief Asher Dolina relented but not after he had handcuffed two TV crew members.

It was past 7pm when we boarded the bus for Camp Bagong Diwa. We were given a packed dinner. We had to help those who were handcuffed to drink their water. I didn’t eat even though I only had crackers (courtesy of Magdalo officers) for lunch. The whole day of tension had sapped my appetite.

It was almost 9pm when we got to the covered court in Bicutan, which was the “processing” centre. Lim and Trillanes were already there. We were told to get off the bus ten at a time. Some were fingerprinted and told to undergo a drug test.

I refused to give more than what’s in my press ID card.

It was 10.30 pm when we boarded the bus out of Camp Bagong Diwa.

The long day had ended.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.