Court clears Talaingod chieftain from Cebu Bakwit School case

Jun. 25, 2024

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – A Talaingod chieftain found freedom after three years of detention as the Tagum City court acquitted him of trafficking Lumad students.

The case stemmed from the Bakwit School at the University of San Carlos in Cebu, which police raided in February 2021 and detained Bay-ao along with six teachers and students, alleging the school was a training ground for the New People’s Army (NPA).

But the Regional Trial Court of Tagum, Branch 2 dismissed last June 20 the two cases of qualified trafficking against Datu Benito Bay-ao and ordered his release.

“(T)he prosecution failed to prove that the purpose of Bay-ao in accompanying the children to Cebu was for the exploitative purpose for them to join and engage in armed activities of the New People’s Army but only their guardian in their quest to continue their studies,” the decision penned by acting presiding Judge Jimmy Boco stated.

The Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), who represented Bay-ao in court, welcomed the decision.

“The court’s dismissal of the charges is a testament to Datu Bay-ao’s innocence and the strength of the evidence, or lack thereof, presented against him. We are pleased that justice has prevailed,” said Bay-ao’s Attorney Dexter Lopoz from UPLM.

Among Bay-ao’s co-accused were Lumad school teachers Chad Errol Booc and Jurain Ngujo II who were slain in a military encounter in February 2022 while surveying for a new location for Lumad schools in New Bataan.

The Lumad group Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women welcomes the decision as a ‘significant win’ for the Indigenous people who were ‘wrongfully accused’ by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as terrorists.

“Usa kini ka dakong kadaugan para sa mga lumad nga padayong nakigbisog alang sa among katungod. Sagpa usab kini sa NTF-ELCAC sa pag demonize sa legitimate nga pakigbisog sa katawhang lumad, (This is a major victory for the Lumad who continue to fight for our rights. This is a slap to the NTF-ELCAC which demonized the legitimate struggles of the Lumad)” said the group’s vice chairperson Kat Dalon, who is also one of the thousands of Lumad students displaced after the forced closure and red-tagging of Lumad schools in Mindanao.

Under the previous administration of Rodrigo Duterte, the Department of Education Region XI shut down more than 215 campuses of the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center and MISFI Academy in 2019 affecting more than 10,000 students.

Salugpongan’s 55 schools were closed based on a complaint filed by National Security Adviser and NTF-ELCAC vice chair Hermogenes Esperon, who alleged without proof that the schools were teaching students to rebel against the government.

RELATED STORY: Groups decry DepEd’s closure order of 55 Lumad schools

Other Lumad schools in Caraga, Northern Mindanao, and Socsksargen also suffered the same fate.

This has led students, volunteer teachers, and some parents to organize Bakwit schools in Davao City, Cebu City, and Metro Manila with the support of universities and religious groups to help Lumad students finish their studies.

As of now, it is not clear whether all Lumad students affected by the closure have been absorbed into DepEd schools in Mindanao. (

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