Saturday, July 16, 2005  

Two mothers' quest for truth and justice

by Suzzane B. Salva-Alueta

First of two parts
      For eight long years now, two grieving mothers have gallantly fought for their family's contrasting versions of "justice."

      On the one hand, there's Thelma Chiong who has overcome a family tragedy and her personal weakness to turn a mother's grief into an anti-crime crusade. 

       Her children Marijoy and Jacqueline were victims in what was perhaps one of the most grotesque crimes in the history of Cebu. On July 16, 1997, they were kidnapped at the Cebu Business Park and brought to a remote town where they were brutalized, humiliated raped and probably murdered.

      Jacqueline, the second of Thelma's five siblings who was named after Jacky Kennedy, would have turned 30 years old this year. 

      Thelma visits Jacqueline's grave at the Queen City Garden-- as she has done every July 16 after 1997-- even if police still have to find her body.   

      Her younger sister Marijoy, who was named after the Blessed Mary because she was born on Sept. 8 (the Virgin Mary's birth date) 1976 would have turned 28. 

      Thelma has no doubt it was Marijoy's corpse that was found in Carcar town, a few days after she and her sister were abducted by, according to witnesses, a group of car-riding youths.

      On the other hand is Margarita Osmeņa Larraņaga, the mother of convict Francisco Juan, who believes her son is a victim of injustice.

      After the late Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Martin Ocampo convicted Paco and six other men on May 5, 1999 and handed down double life sentences, Margarita did not give up hope that she would have him back. 

      Her optimism did not ebb even if on Feb. 3, 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the accused and upgraded the penalty of six of them to death.

      Now on death row for kidnapping and illegal detention are Francisco Juan "Paco" Larraņaga, Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, James Anthony Uy, Ariel Balansag and Alberto Caņo. 

      Only James Andrew, James' Anthony's brother was spared the death sentence because he was a minor when the crime was committed.

      Margarita and her family have tried all possible remedies and avenues to free Paco.

      They sought-- and secured -- the help of the Spanish government and the European Union to ask the Philippine government  to take a second look at the well-publicized case, known as Cebu's "Trial of the Decade."

      With a Spanish father, Manuel Arbelaiz Larraņaga, Paco enjoys dual citizenship. 

      "We have sought the help of the Spanish government because, sad to say, and it really pains me to say this, although I am a Filipino, my own country the Philippines has not given justice to my son," Margarita says.

      "If it were a case of a Filipino citizen in another country, and after conducting an investigation, you found out that he was innocent, do you think our congressmen and senators will not try to come out with their own declaration? I think they would," she adds.

      The Spanish government, which has banned the death penalty, has responded favorably to Larraņaga's cause.

      Its legislature has requested the Philippine Supreme Court to reopen the case. A signature campaign for a retrial, on the other hand, has yielded some 120,000 supporters. 

      The compelling story of a Spanish citizen facing the death sentence in another country has attracted the attention of the Spanish media. A TV team recently flew in from Spain to do a documentary on the case.

      Laia Mestre, a reporter for TV3 based in Catalunia, Barcelona and her two female companions blew into town to retrace the case and better understand its context.

      Mestre, who visited Cebu Daily News and interviewed its staff, made it clear they were not interfering in the decision of the Philippine Supreme Court.

      "We just want to know what happened. We do not have the death penalty in Spain. Considering that a Spanish citizen (Paco) is involved, the people there are saddened," she said in CDN's "Q and A" interview. 

      "That's why we came here, to inform our viewers back in Spain what happened," she said.

      She talked to CDN editor in chief Ivan Suansing and this reporter, who were on CDN's coverage team during the Chiong trial from August 12, 1998 to early January 1999, and took video shots of CDN stories and photos of the case.

 A SPANISH TV team,  led by reporter Laia Mestre
 (center),  reviews CDN files.  Guiding the visitors
 Photo Editor Tonee Despojo  (left)  and  Chief  of
 Reporters Suzzane Salva-Alueta.        
(Junie Mendoza)

      Mestre was specially interested in the conduct of Judge Ocampo, who was perceived to have been feeding off the public's lust for blood and rushing to convict.

      "The judge was strict," Suansing recalled, and brought up the Speedy Trial Act, the law that sets the case for continuous litigation, which shall not exceed 180 days from the first day of trial.

      In hindsight, he believes that the defense lawyers' refusal to put their clients on the witness stand to prove their alibi was a strategic mistake.

      "In the mind of the judge, the only reason for doing that was that Paco and his group were guilty," Suansing told the Spanish reporter.

      He believes that Ocampo's verdict bore out the legal truth, "which is the kind of truth determined by admissible evidence." 

      "But what is truth? We don't know."

Margarita and two of her son's witnesses -- Paco Jarque and Ann Fonacier -- believe the media played a key role in influencing the outcome of the case.

      "To be candid and sincere about it, Paco was tried by publicity," Paco's mother says.

      "From the start, people were made to believe that these were the guys with a bad reputation who were supposed to be problematic kids. That's how they were presented," she recalls.

      "The mindset of the public was these were the guilty persons," she says.

      "That's why when the trial judge announced the sentence of life imprisonment, they were even clamoring for death. They thought that these boys should really be punished. There was a lust for their blood.

      "For the past several years, she says she has followed her lawyer's advice not to speak to the media. But things have changed.

  Larraņaga  (left)  and  Paco's
       witnesses Paco Jarque and Ann Fonacier:
       They were never heard.

      "How can I keep quite? I cannot keep quite when they want to send my son, who is innocent, to death by lethal injection. I have kept quite for so long. I cannot keep quite anymore. Will I allow my son to be killed?" she points out.

      She admits her reluctance -- and fear -- to be interviewed because "I am always at the losing end." 

      I am always dehada. (at a disadvantage.) Based on the slant of the article, you would know that the writer is already convinced that my son did it, Margarita laments.

      "And so it would be useless to talk to this person because no matter what I tell him or her, it will always come out that Mrs. Chiong has the last say.  And she's the one who is correct and I am wrong," she says. 

      Larraņaga believes the media should have done its role in finding out the truth.

      "Everything depends on the slant, on the sympathy of the writer. We are at the mercy of what eventually will come out," she says.

      She says the classmates and friends of Paco were available for interviews, "but they were never asked."

      Margarita says nearly 50 people can attest to her son's presence in Quezon City "before, during and after the crime was committed in Cebu City."

      "But none of our witnesses was asked during the clarificatory hearing at the prosecution's office," she said.

One of them is Ann Fonacier who claims that Paco could not have been among those who kidnapped the sisters.

      When it all happened in Cebu, Paco was with her in a bar in Quezon City, she says.

      "It's crazy," she describes the "mix up." 

      "I was the one who picked him up and brought him to R&R Bar and Restaurant on Katipunan on the evening of July 16, 1997. We came out already, but nobody listened."

      Paco Jarque says the media did not give any credence to what his group was desperately saying. 

      "We were not given the chance to talk. We wanted to talk but nobody listened," the 27-year-old Jarque says. 

      "And if they did, I strongly believe that they would not write what we were saying. They would fabricate something. I really lost faith in the media," he complains.

      His family received threats before he testified in court, but decided to keep quite "because who would listen to us?"

      Jarque, Paco's childhood friend, says it frustrates and pains him to see his friend languishing in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for nearly eight years.

      "We had faith in the justice system but the case taught us that justice does not exist," he says.

      Fonacier and Jarque were among Paco's pals who took the witness stand to affirm the defense team's official alibi: That the accused was in Quezon City when the sisters were being molested in Cebu. 

      Several others were poised to stand up for Paco, but were not allowed by Judge Ocampo upon learning they would be testifying to the same point. 

      When the Chiong case broke out, Jarque says Paco was seeing his cousin. "Before that, he was seeing somebody else. We never heard of Marijoy," he quips.

      Thelma insists that Paco knew Joy way back in high school at the University of Southern Philippines (USP).

      "I can still remember that time when he brought Joy home when we were still living near the Capitol," she said.   

       IN THIS 2001 file photo, Dionisio and Thelma
       Chiong are shown at their daughter's grave.

      Thelma, who is now vice chairman of the Crusade Against Violence (CAV), an anti-crime group, admits that Paco's media blitz appears to be gaining ground -- and believers.

      A series of reports carrying the side of the accused pained the Chiong family, she says. Her husband, Dionisio, she adds was hospitalized after reading the reports.

      "Sakit paminawon (it's painful) (That's painful to hear) when they try to discredit our witnesses. Are they saying that rich people do not know how to lie?" she asks, referring to the children of affluent families who testified, or tried to testify, for Paco. 

      On the growing support of the Spanish people for Paco, Thelma says it does not worry her at all.

      "I do not think our justice system will be swayed by them. We have long won our independence from Spanish colonizers,: she says.

      Deep in her heart, Thelma says, she knows that they have prosecuted, convicted and sent to death row the right persons. "We fought the case with God on our side," she says.

      "I did my own investigation," she avers. "I studied their lives and the people they met with. I wanted to find out who these people were."

      "I found out that the investigation of the authorities - - the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Bureau (CIIB) -- were all true," she says.

      She did her sleuthing when the Supreme Court issued a temporary order (TRO) in 1997, halting the trial of the case for one year. 

Unknown to Margarita, Thelma was her admirer in high school. "She was my teacher in Social Graces," Thelma recalls.

      "I admired her very much and in fact makaingon ko nga dili ko katuo nga maka-produce siyang maldito nga anak parehas kang Paco. (I can say that I can't believe she could produce someone like Paco), (I can say that I can't believe that she can produce such a bad son like Paco.)  she says.

      Thelma believes that the public sentiment against the grisly crime against her daughters was spontaneous. 

      But she perfectly understands Margarita's reaction.

      "She is the mother of one of the men who killed my daughters. Why should I hate her?" Thelma says.

      "Mrs. Larraņaga should be thankful considering that she could still see, talk and kiss his son every time she visits Munti," she stresses.

      "I, on the other hand, visit the place of the dead."
(to be continued)

(NOTE: Blue wordings is webmaster's own English translation of the Visayan terms used in this article.)

                                  DOCUMENT REFORMATTED FOR  CLEARER APPRECIATION.                                        

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