Some elements in the military and a group of retired generals are rallying behind a general charged over the disappearance of two activists, in a challenge to both the primacy of civilian justice and the administration of President Benigno Aquino.
Retired Major General Jovito Palparan, who had been on the run since December 2011, was arraigned yesterday in a civilian court in Bulacan province just outside Manila, where university students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan went missing eight years ago.
A sick-looking Palparan, 64, kept silent, prompting the court to enter a "not guilty" plea on his behalf for the abduction and disappearance of the two women, whom a witness alleged were raped and tortured.
The 800-strong Association of Generals and Flag Officers (AGFO) headed by retired armed forces chief-of-staff Edilberto Adan deplored media reports calling Palparan berdugo (the butcher) and said Palparan deserved to be tried under due process before being pronounced guilty.
"Professional soldiers like Major General Palparan faced hardships and risks. He put his life on the line like countless Filipino soldiers in the service of the country, starting as a junior officer in the 1970s. His courage and leadership saved lives and protected communities. His sacrifices should be taken into account," Adan said.
When asked how active military officers felt about Palparan's trial, a senior officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told the South China Morning Post: "Did you read AGFO's statement? A lot of us, that's how we feel. We just can't say it."
The incumbent armed forces chief-of-staff, General Gregorio Catapang, praised Palparan, saying "he was really an aggressive officer who really had strong anti-communist [views] and he did his job really well."
However, Catapang also said the arrest would not weaken their counter-insurgency operations. "My order to soldiers is to defeat the enemies of the state without committing human rights violations and [inflicting] collateral damage. We don't tolerate human rights violations."
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a former junior navy officer, urged authorities to let the military take custody of Palparan to ensure his safety. "This is also proper since the alleged crimes he committed were related to his functions as a commander in the Philippine army," Trillanes said.
The court, however, ordered that the general be held in Bulacan.
Palparan is the first-ever general to face civilian trial over human rights violations since 1972, when strongman Ferdinand Marcos declared an all-out war against communist rebels and let the military off the leash.
"We won't deny we had problems before over human rights," armed forces public affairs office chief Ramon Zagala told the Post yesterday.
He also said the military had put reforms in place. "If you look at our record last year, we had just 11 alleged human rights violations compared to hundreds before that."
He said one safeguard they had put in place was to turn over suspected rebels to the police quickly, instead of initially bringing them to military camps.