By Media Mindanao News Service
(August 15, 1987 News Digest Volume 1, August 1987-July 1988 Posted by Davao Today)

SURIGAO SUR (MMNS) — As thousands of workers trekked to the nearby Paper Industries Corporation of the Philippines (PICOP) to collect their pay they could not help but pause locked up inside the stockade of the 416th PC company detachment in Mangagoy, Bislig town here. The prison looked more like a cage with full length bars substituting for the walls. The man who was wearing dark sunglasses to protect his eyes was Fr. Elegio Bianchi, who currently faces charges — both minor and serious — in local courts. It was a bad time for the cleric to be “exhibited” since it was a weekend and the Mangagoy folks were celebrating their fiesta.

“He might have looked like a white monkey to those throngs of people,” Fr. Frank Olviz, parish priest of the bayside industrial barrio, lamented of his fellow priest’s manner of detention. Once, as Bianchi would relate later, soldiers mocked him by ordering an underling “to buy bananas for the monkey.” “But monkeys do need nourishment too, don’t they? the massively-built Italian retorted to his jailers.

The prelude to this show unfolded in the afternoon of July 18 when Bianchi was arrested while travelling to Mangagoy. But while the case of Fr. Brian and the Negros 9 who were imprisoned in 1984 involved murder, Bianchi was taken in by the Criminal Investigation Service (CIS) for the violation of Republic Act 3846 or specifically, the illegal possession of radio equipment and accessories. The offense, which carries a maximum of penalty of 2,000 pesos fine and/or two years imprisonment, seemed simple enough to go through. The hitch, however, was that the warrant of arrest was served on a Saturday when there were no offices that could process Bianchi’s 2000-peso bail.

Despite the pleadings of Bianchi, his lawyer, Mamerto Alciso Jr; and Fr. Olviz, the PC/INP provincial commander, Col. Michael Mendez, refused to postpone the service of the warrant until Monday citing an alleged “bad precedent” involving priest-turned-rebel, Fr. Frank Navarro. Thus started the Italian priest’s “humiliation” as he was hauled to the detachment.

The bearded and long-haired but neatly combed parish priest of Tagbina town sees his predicament “completely related to the systematic persecution of the Church in Surigao del Sur.” Led by Bishop Ireneo Amantillo of the diocese of Tandag, the clergy here, as described by Bianchi, is “deeply involved in the church of the poor.”

Explains he: “Th military and some local officials want to project that we have all turned into one whole communist organization.”

Lawyer Alciso fumed that the first two days of his client’s detention were “dehumanizing especially when done to a priest.” Stresses he: “They really wanted to make it appear that Bianchi indulged in illegal activities.”

When Monday came, the PC told Bianchi he could now process his bail but the priest curtly refused. Instead he asked for transfer to a “more decent” detention quarters which authorities found in Bislig provincial jail, about four kilometers from Mangagoy.

Bianchi shared his cell, complete with two rickety double-deck beds with inmate Andres Plaza, 25, who is accused of murder. Guards have so far acted courteously to Bianchi and have kept open the doors in certain hours of the day for the priest’s visitors from all over Mindanao. Sometimes, he shared meals and drinks with them and several times celebrated the Eucharist. His detention, he reveals, has made him feel the plight of detainees everywhere: lack of water, inadequate food and poor health facilities.

Comments Alciso on his client’s decision: “This may appear to be dramatized but that’s the way the military wanted it to be, they also drumbeat their own line.” The lawyer wonders what has gotten the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) so interested on an “ordinary crime” such as the illegal possession of radios. Alciso points out that the search warrant was addressed to “any peace officer” which he understood as the police. Instead what intercepted Bianchi’s Toyota cruiser in the outskirts of Tagbina was a military convoy that seemed destined for Diwata mountains: a Chimite armored vehicle, two soldier-laden trucks, with one towing a 105 mm howitzer and two jeeps. Personally led by Lt. Edilberto Adan, commander of the 28th Infantry Battalion, 4ID the soldiers accosted and thoroughly searched Bianchi and his vehicle. In between moments, he heard Adan threaten “we don’t want priests who are communists and NDF organizers.”

On their way back, the Italian was refused his request to bring along the town mayor to witness the search at the convent. The conduct was not done any better. With lights put off, Adan’s troopers combed the area for three hours. The commander’s driver and a companion even had the temerity to eat food on Bianchi’s table without the priest’s permission and when caught by Bianchi quipped: “After all you also feed the NPAs.” Confiscated were a base transceiver, mobile radio, hand set, video camera and still camera including two antennas.

Bianchi’s lawyer showed official documents, signed by army custodian Capt. Aquileo Enojada, which listed down 13 separated items of radio equipment, cameras, accessories taken from the convent (strangely, only four items were submitted to the court). Alciso stresses that not one “subversive material” appeared in the list as subsequent news reports of the raid listed “voluminous subversive documents” as among those seized.

Alciso avers that undue military pressure was strongly felt even in the pursuit of Bianchi’s case of possessing communications equipment. With court records as basis, Alciso says investigating fiscal Paterno V. Tac-an prepared the information on July 9, four days before the 10-day period given to Bianchi to submit his counter-affidavit was due.

On July 13, Alciso frantically filed a motion for a 10-day extension which was officially received by Tac-an’s office the following day. This was denied by the fiscal with the reason that he had already released the information to the court on the 13th. Yet records showed that it was only on July 16 that the municipal trial court of Hinatuan-Tagbina submitted its response citing in the denial “that a representative from AFP-GHQ Camp Aguinaldo… has manifested that they cannot brook further delay.”

Nevertheless, Alciso forsees that the military is not interested in the resolution of the cases against Bianchi, especially when they announced that they want the Italian cleric deported. “When Bianchi is out naturally he cannot defend himself. That is when the military will continue their smear campaign against the Church,” the lawyer warns.

It is hard to detach the Tagbina raid from other events currently happening in the province then. Only two days before Bianchi’s arrest, a mass oath-taking by about 1,200 alleged former rebels and sympathizers took place in Tandag town in a ceremony attended by military top brass and provincial officials. The military unveiled their two “star” surrenderees, Cagwait OIC Ernesto Camino and Engineer Mansueta dela Cruz. Both claimed they were high-ranking members of the provincial National Democratic Front (NDF) though neither could exactly name their role without contradicting their own previous claims. The event, where surrendered firearms numbered less than 10, was preceded by days of bombasts over the airlanes as Camino and a military spokesman accused priests, including Bianchi of being communist sympathizers. Seventy six-year old Fr. Pastor Bangoy was identified as one “Kumander Diwata.”

At the same time, the government-backed BANTAY BAYAN, an anti-communist vigilante group mushroomed. Bianchi opposed it seeing enlistment was coercive.

Bianchi is a native of Cummo City, Italy where his parents and a sister live. His father, Luigi, 82, is a physician who served as a captain during the Second World War, while mother, Rosita, 70, is a former French teacher. According to him, the news alarmed her mother who had sent several cables. Things have gotten calmer eversince Bianchi told her the real score via long distance phone.

Already the Italian embassy has signified interest to send an emissary to look over the Bianchi case. “As far as the Italian government is concerned, I am ann Italian citizen inside a foreign jail,” Fr. Bianchi says.

In “church terminology,” however, Bianchi says he is a “member of the Filipino clergy of the diocese of Tagum, Davao del Norte.” In short, a Filipino priest. In early 1975, he requested the Tagum bishop to give him permission to enter priesthood in a Mindanao seminary but was sent to Rome instead. Ten years earlier the young Bianchi had served as a lay missionary in a Pasil (Cebu) squatter area and Samar. He also earned a philosophy degree from Don Bosco seminary in Canlubang, in preparation for priesthood.

On June 30, 1978 in special ceremonies, Bianchi was ordained priest by Filipino bishop Godofredo Pedernal, the director of the college of Rome. The new priest was sent back to Tagum where he was assigned to towns affected by militarization. he recalls that it was when he dedicated his time to the expansion of Basic Christian Communities (BBC),” according to the view of the Church in Mindanao and Sulu,” that he began getting the ire of the military. Communications equipment had then become a necessity for diocesan priests not only in Davao del Norte but in Kidapawan and Butuan as well, and Bianchi quickly took a fancy on radios. He bought his rig from Dioscoro Bocod, Region 11 chaplain of the semi-official Regional Emergency Action Communication Team (REACT), and of late has been processing his license to operate.

When he was “borrowed” by the Tandag prelature in 1974 “because there was lack of priests,” and assigned him first in Lanuza town, he brought along his radio and other equipment. His use of communications was “open” and once, he recalls, the police even utilized one of the sets.

Bianchi has maintained a strong stance for human rights in Surigao and has campaigned against abuses committed either “by the NPAs or the military.” “The only difference,” he says, “was that the list of abuses by the military were submitted to their local commanders while those of the NPA were publicly denounced.” He finds it “unimaginable” to give aid to the rebels, “while (he) and his convent boys eat only camote leaves for meals.” When the organization of the Bantay Bayan by the administration of acting found Bianchi blocking their path. His possession of radios could have been the easiest thing to pin him down.

About six days after his arrest, Bianchi scored some legal points when the Region XI Commission on Human Rights acting on the priest’s affidavit, summoned Gen. Adalem, Colonels Mendez and Adanto to explain their case against the priest. Adalem backtracked and denied he had asked for the cleric’s deportation. Adan called a press conference in Tagbinato clarify that their case against Bianchi “is not directed to the Church.”

Asked if his case has any similarity to that of Fr. Gore, he says the common denominator is still “the harassment of the Church.” His being a foreigner is only a incidental “and has no regrets over his fate. “I am lucky I was chosen as the sample because eventually this will boomerang on my accusers and the truth will surface,” Bianchi states. (Media Mindanao News Service News Digest Volume 1, August 1987-July 1988 Posted by Davao Today)

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