Charges in Manila Hostage Crisis

By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: September 16, 2010

MANILA — At least 10 people, including police officers, government officials and journalists, will face charges in the deaths of eight Hong Kong residents who were held hostage on a bus in downtown Manila last month, the Philippine justice secretary said on Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference in Manila, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said she would recommend criminal and administrative charges but declined to elaborate on the accusations or identify who would be charged. Ms. de Lima, who is overseeing a panel investigating the Aug. 23 hostage standoff, said a report would be submitted to President Benigno S. Aquino III on Friday.

Ms. de Lima also said the hostages were killed by the hostage-taker and not by police officers, citing the accounts of three survivors who she said corroborated the testimony of the bus driver that the hostage-taker shot the victims. She seemed to contradict remarks she made last week, when she said ballistic experts had indicated that Mr. Mendoza could not have killed all the victims.

Seven tourists from Hong Kong and their tour guide were killed when their bus was commandeered by a former Manila police officer, Rolando Mendoza. The bus remained parked at Rizal Park throughout the day and into the evening as the police tried to negotiate with Mr. Mendoza.

Mr. Mendoza, who had been dismissed by the Manila Police Department over extortion charges, demanded that he be reinstated in exchange for the release of the tourists. As negotiations collapsed, gunfire was heard within the bus, and Mr. Mendoza was killed by a police sniper.

The standoff has led to a rift between the governments of the Philippines and China. Leaders in Hong Kong openly criticized the police handling of the crisis. At hearings over the case conducted by the Philippines Senate, various mistakes by the Manila police came to light, including miscommunication between various units.

Beijing has pushed for a thorough, speedy investigation into the case. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents marched at the end of August, protesting the Philippine government’s handling of the standoff.

Mr. Aquino has also criticized news coverage of the standoff. Television networks beamed images of the crisis and its violent end around the world. The president has said TV images showing Mr. Mendoza’s brother being taken from the scene by Manila police earlier in the day, seen on a screen inside the busload of tourists, agitated the hostage taker.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the country’s largest journalist group, cautioned the government against filing criminal charges against journalists who covered the standoff.

“While we do not deny that the lapses of certain journalists contributed to the tragic end, filing criminal charges against reporters because of ethical or professional lapses — in effect, criminalizing the weaknesses of the media — sets a dangerous precedent,” Nestor Burgos, the group’s chairman, said in a telephone interview.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Journalists Association said on Thursday the group is following the investigation and possible charges. Last month the group sent a letter to Mr. Aquino urging him not to blame the news media over the incident.

“We’re deeply concerned over the case,” said the spokesman, Hiu-yeung Chong.

Mr. Aquino said last week he would wait until receiving the panel’s report before deciding on actions to take. On Thursday, Ms. de Lima, asked how high up the police command chain the possible charges might rise, said, “High enough.”

“Did the president not say heads will roll?” Ms. de Lima was quoted on the ABS-CBN Web site. “So we expect the president to act on the basis of our recommendations.”

Kevin Drew contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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