On the evening of 16th July 1997, Marijoy and Jackie Chiong waited in the rain outside a mall in Cebu, Philippines, for their father to pick them up and take them home. When their father arrived, later than planned having been held up at work, they were no longer there. They were never seen again.
On that same evening, Paco Larrañaga was enjoying some drinks with friends and fellow students at the R & R Bar in Manila, 350 miles away from Cebu, having spent the day taking mid-term exams at culinary college. They stayed until around 2am, and Paco was back in school at 8am the next day for more exams.
The media and the people of Cebu were united in horror at the disappearance of the girls, but the police had nothing to go on until the body of a woman was found in a ravine.
At first everyone clamoured to believe it was one of the girls, but the girls’ own brother, who saw the body, denied it was either of his sisters.
In the absence of anything concrete to go on, the media began to speculate about the involvement o Mr Chiong’s employer, an alleged drug lord with ties to the police and the judiciary. At no time however, was this line of enquiry ever followed up by the police.
Three months went by and pressure to make an arrest mounted. Vice-President Estrada, whose long-time personal secretary was the missing girls’ aunt, began to take an active interest in the case.
One morning, as Paco arrived on campus in Manila, he was accosted by a group of plain-clothed policemen. Despite having no warrant, they took him into custody.
For a while back in Cebu Paco had hung out with a bad crowd, getting into fights and earning a reputation with Cebu authorities. But the Center for Culinary Arts in Manila had been a fresh start for him – he had found what he wanted to do with his life, and was a dedicated and promising student.
But for the police back in Cebu, it was enough that he was from the hated “mestizo” upper class and fitted the vague description of an unsubstantiated witness sighting of a “big, fair-skinned mestizo” near the mall when the girls disappeared. He was imprisoned, along with four others on equally thin substantiation, and the police announced they had the culprits.
Months went by whilst the police tried to build a case against the five, but they could find no evidence to link them with the crime – the crime itself being uncertain, as the body that was found was never able to be convincingly identified as one of the girls, and no other trace of their whereabouts nor of any specific harm being done to them was found.
Until the day, 8 months after the girls’ disappearance, when the police triumphantly
produced Davidson Rusia. A young man who had appeared from nowhere, and who made the claim that he was the 8th member of the gang (he implicated the Uy brothers in addition to the original five), that he had participated in the kidnap, rape and killing of the two girls, and that Paco was the ringleader. In return for this claim, he was promised immunity from prosecution for his part in the crime.
As the case came to trial the media frenzy intensified. Crowds outside the courtroom were baying for defendants’ blood. Two young working class girls had apparently been subjected to a horrific ordeal and a terrible death by a gang of men led by an over-privileged delinquent, and they cried for justice.
But as the prosecution made their case, it became clear that the only evidence they had was Rusia’s testimony. The testimony of a man who, as was shown when the defense were finally allowed to question him, lied under oath about his previous convictions by saying he had none. The defense went on to prove his convictions and custodial sentences for burglary and forgery, and in response Rusia appeared to faint. The defense protested against the legitimacy of Rusia as a state witness, and yet Judge Martin Ocampo reacted by ruling them guilty of contempt of court and having them removed from court.
The court-appointed defense team who took over protested that they had had no time to prepare but Judge Ocampo told them they had to proceed. They started by calling the first few of no less than 35 witnesses prepared to testify that Paco was in Manila at school and in the R and R Bar at the time of the incident, and began to show photographs and college roll records to substantiate the claims. After hearing just a handful of the testimonies, the judge dismissed them, saying that it proved nothing. Photos could be doctored, records amended, and Paco – this 19 year old boy without enough money even to have a car whilst at college – could have chartered a plane or a boat to get to Cebu and back.
After a trial lasting six months, and without Paco being allowed to speak a word in his own defence, Judge Ocampo adjourned the case for three months to consider his verdict. Basing his verdict entirely on the testimony of Rusia, a man who, it was later shown, had suffered torture whilst in police custody prior to his “confession”, he found all seven defendants guilty on two counts of kidnap and illegal detention, and gave them two life sentences each.
The reaction in the courtroom, in Cebu, in the rest of the country and in the media was explosive. Those behind Paco and his co-accused were horrified that they can have been found guilty, and those against them cried out for the death sentence.
Both sides were determined to appeal, and after a grueling four year wait, the Supreme Court finally gave their verdict. They upheld the conviction for kidnapping, and found the defendants additionally guilty of rape and murder and issue a death sentence on all seven. During the proceedings, it emerged that the Chief Justice’s wife was Mrs Chiong’s aunt.
Desperate at this complete failure of the Philippine justice system to protect their innocent son, the Larrañagas turned to Spain. Paco holds dual-citizenship thanks to his father Manuel, a Spaniard of Basque origin, and his family hoped he would be extended some protection by them.
Paco’s story started to gain momentum in Spain and across the world. Diario Qué, one of the biggest national newspapers in Spain, launched a nationwide signature campaign supporting Paco’s innocence and delivered 150,000 signatures to the Spanish Congress. Amnesty International got behind Paco and activists delivered a petition of 300,000 signatures to the Philippine Embassy in Madrid demanding that the death penalty be abolished. The Spanish Parliament called for his release, and some of their congressmen traveled to visit Paco. The EU human rights organization Fair Trials Abroad, applied for a United Nations Human Rights Committee investigation, and the UN complied. FTA further lobbied the EU institutions and in November 2005, the European Parliament passed an Urgency Resolution regarding the death penalty and injustice in the Philippines, in which members resolved to call upon the President of the Philippines to grant Paco an absolute pardon and immediate release.
Finally, in June 2006, nearly 9 years since the girls’ disappearance, new Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, under pressure from the UN, the Catholic Church and Spain, abolished capital punishment.
In July 2006, the UN issued their decision, citing nine violations of international law and human rights in Paco’s case which rendered his conviction unsound, and called for “an early consideration for release on parole”. They demanded action from the Philippine government, giving them “ninety days to act on the matter”.
And yet the Philippines did nothing.
In September 2009, Paco transferred to prison in Spain, under a Prisoner Transfer Treaty newly-signed between the two countries, hoping that the Spanish government and the Spanish people would once more stand by him and do whatever they could to restore him to a life outside prison.
Today, after exhaustive investigation into the legal complexities of Paco’s case and the relative roles and responsibilities of the two nations involved in the Prisoner Transfer Treaty, it is clear that the legal channels are now all but closed.
Paco’s case has been taken to the highest court in the Philippines, and they found against him, and then has been taken to the only higher international legal power, the UN. They ruled absolutely in his favour, but the Philippines have so far blatantly ignored it.
There is one last hope – the power of Executive Clemency and Absolute Pardon which only the President of the Philippines can bestow. The current Premier, President Aquino, came to power on a platform of judicial reform and the prosecution of corruption. He has recently ordered the creation of special teams to investigate human rights abuses by state and non-state forces in the Philippines.
We must bring Paco’s situation to his attention, and mobilise the international political community who hold some sway over the Philippines to exert that influence and call for justice and for Paco’s immediate his release.
Our best targets are President Aquino himself and the European Parliament.
We must shout to be heard. Shout with us.