Saturday, February 21, 2004

      "I CANNOT and I will not just keep quiet and let an innocent man die!" With this assertion, prominent Cebu businessman Miguel Juan del Gallego yesterday stunned colleagues in a business lunch by announcing his resignation as chairman of the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) Visayas chapter which he has headed since 1992.

      He said he was giving up his post "to devote my time and energies" to a crusade to seek justice for death row candidate Paco Larraņaga and the Chiong family whose two daughters were kidnapped in 1997 and believed killed.

        "I truly believe in Paco's innocence and I truly empathize with the Chiong family for their loss. In time, they will appreciate what I am doing," he said.

       With tears in his eyes, Del Gallego walked away from the podium after his speech to join his family at the back of the ballroom of the Cebu City Sports Club and left the venue. At 5:30 p.m. he boarded a flight for Manila.

      Lawyers of the Larraņaga family are preparing to file a motion for reconsideration with the Supreme Court which recently handed down the death sentence for Larraņaga and five other men accused of kidnapping Jacqueline and Marijoy Chiong in Cebu City last July 16, 1997.

    The PBSP is the country's largest corporate-led social development foundation and spends millions of pesos supporting projects that address poverty.

       "I had no idea he would do this," said John Domingo, Visayas vice chairman, who had to abruptly take over as presiding officer in the 16th annual membership meeting of the PBSP Visayas chapter.

        "You can see he was very passionate about this. Yes, I will support him," Domingo told Cebu Daily News after the meeting.

        The decision shook the PBSP Visayas executive committee and national officers, who had no inkling he was stepping down. Del Gallego was about to be selected for another term. He broke the news after giving his annual report on anti-poverty projects in the Visayas.

        PBSP national chairman Manuel Pangilinan of PLDT, who was present, was among those caught mmm

off-guard. Pangilinan thanked Del Gallego for his longtime service and proceeded with the rest of the program.

       Del Gallego went public with his "crusade" about two weeks ago, prompted in part by a daughter's e-mail from the United States bewailing the "injustice" of Larraņaga's fate of death by lethal injection.

      Three of his daughters were among Larraņaga's friends who insist to this day that the young man couldn't have committed the crime because he was at a party with them in Manila the night of July 16, 1997 when the Chiong sisters disappeared.

       "My daughters would not lie to me," Del Gallego told Cebu Daily News in an interview.

        Two daughters moved to the United States after the Chiong trial and are scared to come home because of the case, he said.

       "Oh, how I wish my daughters were not in Manila with Paco and his friends the night the Chiong sisters disappeared here in Cebu," he said in his speech.

Clear conscience
        "I know how he (Paco) was convicted by the lower court to double life imprisonment. I know why he has been suffering now for seven years in jail for a crime he could not have committed. But I cannot understand at all how the Supreme Court has elevated it to death by lethal injection. I guess only God can answer that."

       "But I cannot and will not in clear conscience just keep quiet and let an innocent man die," said Del Gallego, smacking the rostrum with his hand.

     "My late father, he who fought in Bataan and endure the Death March for our beloved country, always taught us to stand for truth and justice. I want to leave the same legacy to my children."

     His daughters Monique, Marian and Martina were among those appearing with Larraņaga in a photo presented by the defense as having been taken in Manila when the Chiong sisters were kidnapped.

      The crusade was, according to Del Gallego, a family decision and also puts them at risk.

       He asked the PBSP members to "pray that nothing untoward will happen to any member of my family because of this, our crusade for truth and justice. I love them so much."

         "I am a father of six girls and I have spent a number of sleepless nights knowing that a heinous, gruesome crime can be committed in our midst. An innocent young man can be charged, incarcerated and given the death penalty while guilty parties run scot free and are very much capable of striking again."

         Early this month, the Supreme Court en banc imposed the death sentence on Larraņaga, Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, James Anthony Uy, Ariel Balansag and Alberto Caņo for the death of Marijoy and the disappearance of Jacqueline. The Supreme Court meted a life sentence on another accused -- James Andrew Uy -- since he was a minor at the time both crimes were committed. (With Irene Seno Cruz)

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