Gemma, grandmother of 12 year-old Kristine Joy Sailog mourns during a funeral service inside the church  in Binan Laguna, Thursday December 29, 2016. Kristine Joy died after a stray bullet pierced her heart Wednesday night before attending the dawn mass with her mother. The bullet was intended for alleged drug pusher Allan Fernandez (photo by Linus Escandor)

A group of mothers and widows have filed cases against policemen believed to be behind the killings their sons and husbands. The court cases were the first legal challenges to the massive anti-drug campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte that is sweeping the country since he assumed office in June 2016.

The so-called war on drugs targeted alleged drug traffickers and drug users and led to thousands [read more] of deaths. Majority of the victims are petty drug dealers and users in blighted communities. The killings were either blamed on policemen or hooded killers that summarily executed drug suspects and even some innocent civilians. Despite public outcry from human rights groups, the Catholic Church, the international community [read more] and families of victims, the Duterte government has not relented [read more].

“Bakit kailangan silang patayin? Sana dinakip lang sila. Wala silang kasalanan.(Why do they have to be killed? They could have just been arrested. They have done no wrong),” said Ma. Belen Daa, mother to Marcelo Daa Jr., one of four who were shot dead in a raid in Barangay Payatas on August 21, 2016. Marcelo,along with Anthony Comendo, Raffy Gabo and Jessie Cule died while Efren Morillo survived.

The first legal challenge against the “drug war” was a petition for a writ of amparo filed by with families of the victims and survivor of the raid in Payatas, before the Supreme Court.  On January 31, the high court granted [read more] the petition by prohibiting the respondents, who were  the four policemen involved in the raid, from going within one kilometer of the victims’ families and the survivor. The policemen were identified as Police Senior Inspector Emil Garcia, PO3 Allan Formelliza,  PO1 James Aggarao and PO1 Melchor Navisaga. However, their superior officers  namely Senior Superintendent  Guillermo Lorenzo Eleazar and  Superintendent  Lito Patay, and including the Philippine National Police Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa,  were also named respondents of in the writ of amparo, which, in this case, aims to protect  Morillo and the families of his slain companions from harassment and intimidation by the police.

The legal mantle provided by the high court has failed to allay fears. Two weeks after the grant of the petition, two bodies were dumped near the house of Belen Daa, as if sending an eerie message.

The second legal challenge was filed by Morillo on March 2 before the Ombudsman for murder, frustrated murder, robbery, planting of drugs and planting of firearms against the four policemen and five civilian informants and agents.

The third legal challenge was filed by Morillo himself a week later, on March 9, before a lower court, seeking a reinvestigation, release of documents and suspension of the trial. Morillo was earlier accused of “direct assault upon the agent of authority”, meaning Morillo and his companions fired at the group of policemen who raided them. Through the omnibus motion, Morillo’s lawyers intended to gather documents, especially the forensic report, that could help Morillo’s case [read more] and shed light on his companions’ death.

Lawyers from the independent Center for International Law (CenterLaw), representing the Morillo and victims’ families, hoped that the legal cases would “stop impunity on its track”.  It was not easy to seek out the families of the victims and Morillo himself, more so convince them to file a case against the authorities.  Anthony Gil Aquino, one of the lawyers, said fear is not easily eliminated.  However lawyer Kristine Antonio said that the cases may have some effects on the policemen involved in the killing, perhaps would have a way of sobering them up.

During a forum with students of the University of the Philippines Diliman, Ma. Belen Daa said she is no longer afraid to speak out because she cannot accept the fact that her son, Marcelo, was treated inhumanely just before he died. He was reportedly handcuffed, made to sit on a chair and shot, allegedly, at close range.  “He wasn’t a drug addict. He was a respectful man and kind to his friends and their neighbors,” she said.  Marcelo used to work as a garbage collector and sorter although his employers recently lost the garbage collection contract to a competitor. When Marcelo stopped working, Belen, who worked as maid in Makati, gave him half of her monthly salary of P4,000 to help raise his three kids. But now with the kids orphaned, and affected by their grieving mother, Belen decided to stop working to take care of them. She asked a priest to talk to one of the children that she found unusually withdrawn and had stopped going to school. Belen Daa said she lost a son and she cannot bear to lose any more loved one.

Marilyn Malimban, the partner of Jessie Cule, recalled that the latter was still suffering from hip injury a week before he died. Jessie Cule, also a garbage collector, fell off the truck that he had to undergo treatment. Marilyn imagined him just before he died, kneeling with much difficulty but pleading for his life. He was 37 years old. They were together for seven years. What made Marilyn angry was seeing the news the following day. A television network tagged him and his companions as “notorious drug dealers and hold-up men,” probably from what the police told the reporters. In this case, the media and the policemen destroyed the good name of Jessie Cule, and for Marilyn, this is one of the reasons why she decided to file cases, to redeem his reputation.

When she faced a group of students, Lydia Gabo, the mother of Raffy Gabo, was composed and spoke little. Her son, Raffy, 23, was also a garbage collector. He could be otherwise had he lived.

Lydia Gabo, like Ma.  Belen Daa and Marilyn Malimban, believed that they could win justice for their loved ones. Soon, the three women may find more mothers and widows fighting a similar injustice.

Mary Ann Domingo filed cases against 15 policemen who broke into her house in Caloocan City early in the morning of September 15, 2016, and nabbed her husband, Luis Bonifacio, and their son, Gabriel Lois Bonifacio and dragged  them outside. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots and then the policemen told her to claim her husband and son’s bodies from Manila Central University Hospital. Domingo, assisted by the National Union of People’s Lawyers, filed the criminal and administrated cases before the Ombudsman against the policemen and their informant. NUPL has teamed up with a faith-based group called “Rise Up for Life and for Rights” that campaigns for human rights and encourages families of victims of the government’s drug campaign to file charges in court against authorities and individuals behind the deaths of their family members.  Domingo’s cases are the first cases assisted by the support group so far.

Mothers and widows seeking justice for their slain husbands and sons should be prepared for a long wait because the “drug war” has received popular support. Moreover, the Duterte government itself , as the lawyers from Centerlaw said, is “at the height of its power.” However, for Belen Daa she is happy that she had taken the first steps by demanding  punishment for the killers of her son, Marcelo.