Iligan City, Lanao del Norte- A human barricade was mounted in front of the Iligan City Legislative Hall since Sunday afternoon, May 20, 2007 as supporters of leading District 1 Congressional contender Vicente “Varf” Belmonte, an opposition candidate, gave their support to the latter’s petition to the COMELEC asking for a change of venue in the canvassing of Iligan City votes. The mass protest was premised on the incident of three (3) ballot boxes forcibly opened inside the Mindanao Civic Center in Tubod, Lanao del Norte,where the Provincial Canvassing is done, sometime in the early morning of May 20, 2007. The alleged ballot boxes were said to be COCs from the municipalities of Kauswagan, Maigo and Bacolod
As per Election procedures and regulations go, canvassing of the certificate of votes from the cities and municipalities within the province of Lanao del Norte should be conducted at the Provincial Capitol. However, with the incident that took place last Sunday, District 1 Congressional candidate Vicente “Varf” Belmonte, who is the lead contender among five (5) congressional candidates (among them Nikki Badelles, who placed second in the ongoing canvassing, Imelda “Angging” Dimaporo, at third, Atty. Leo Zaragoza placing fourth, and Uriel G. Borja at fifth place ), feared that the same will happened to the Iligan City votes that will be brought to the Provincial Capitol for canvassing. It was with this premise, that Mr. Belmonte filed a petition before the Regional Director of COMELEC Region X, Atty. Nicodemo Ferrer, for a change of venue.
Mr. Belmonte’s supporters then massed to the Iligan City Hall to prevent the local COMELEC to bring the ballot boxes to the Provincial Capitol in Tubod, Lanao del Norte in the afternoon of May 20, 2007. Belmonte’s group contended, that the provincial COMELEC should not bring nor allow the ballot boxes to be brought to the Provincial Capitol in Lanao del Norte pending the COMELEC Region X’s decision to their petition. The group held vigil since Sunday night infront of the Iligan City Legislative Hall and prayed from morning until afternoon of Monday, May 21, 2007. The barricade started at around 12noon when news of the arrival of the supporters of congressional candidate Imelda Dimaporo reached the gathered group. Emotions ran high when the latter’s supporters together with COMELEC deputies from the province arrived, accompanied by uniformed military personnel, who are allegedly will be accompanying the COMELEC officials who will bring the ballot boxes to the Provincial Capitol. The latter’s group where prevented from getting near the Legislative Building, where the Provincial COMELEC Officer, Atty. Hamilton Cuevas and others where staying with the ballot boxes, by the human barricade which prevented them access to the building.
The tension lasted more or less three hours as the vehicles bearing the Dimaporo supporters were put in idle, as if readying for any eventualities, while negotiations were undergoing. The human barricade also stood their ground. It was only when Atty Cuevas issued an order to the COMELEC deputies from the Provincial Capitol and to their escorts that they cannot bring with them the ballot boxes pending the decision of the COMELEC National Office, that the atmosphere around the vicinity of the Iligan City Hall visibly lightened.
The proclaimed Mayor of Iligan City also called on for sober heads and explained to the people the procedures of the canvassing of votes. Though he allowed the people to remain within the premises of the City Hall grounds provided that the assembly would be a peaceful one and ordered for the city police to keep guard and keep the peace within the area.
It can be recalled that on the eve before the May 14 elections, news broke out that the residence of Congressional Candidate Belmonte was “raided” and searched. According to Chito Cruz, one of the supporters of Mr. Belmonte, the “raid” was a political harassment as the search warrant used by the searching officers is obtained from a Manila Regional Court despite the presence of local courts in Iligan. He said that the search produced one shotgun that was license, albeit expired.
Other harassments that they allegedly experienced were during the counting and tallying of votes in the Mindanao Civic Center, Tubod, Lanao del Norte as they were not allowed inside for the counting and tallying of votes. Some of the poll watchers also narrated that they were verbally threatened and harassed by provincial guards guarding the vicinity with words to the effect…”Gusto mo mukaon ug bala?” (Do you want to eat bullets…?)
Based on unofficial NAMFREL results, Mr. Belmonte emerged as the lead and winner among the seven (7) municipalities and one city covering District 1 (Linamon, Kauswagan, Maigo, Bacolod, Kolambogan, Tubod, Baroy and Iligan City). In Iligan City alone Mr. Belmonte’s votes is fifty-eigth thousand nine hundred sixteen (58,916), Atty Nikki Badelles’ votes is forty-five thousand eighty (45,080), and Angging Dimaporo’s votes is forty-two thousand nine hundred fifty seven (42,957). Nikki Badelles already conceded defeat. Both Badelles and Dimaporo are administration-backed candidates.
Challenging a Political Dynasty
Historically, for almost four (4) decades, the Dimaporos had always been the ruling elite and reigning political dynasty in the province of Lanao del Norte. All those years, they remained uncontested or if they were the opposing party/ies have no way of defeating the Dimaporos with the latter’s vast political clout and resources.
The latter were allegedly legendary for their cheating and harassment tactics. For the election 2007, Abdullah Dimakuta-Dimaporo ran and was proclaimed for the 2nd Congressional District, Angging Quibranza-Dimaporo for the 1st Congressional District and the couple’s son Khalid Q. Dimaporo vied and also proclaimed for the gubernatorial seat.
On the other hand, a party-list group also joined in the barricade to also protect their votes. The Anak-Mindanao party-list which got the highest votes in Iligan City among the more than ninety (90) party-list groups in this year’s elections, called for the respect and protection of the sanctity of the ballot and for the will of the people to be uphold and respected. The group also feared that their votes will also be affected especially that they have to put up with many administration-backed party-list groups which are far from being marginalized and unrepresented sectors in the society. While Anak-Mindanao have a concrete mass-based in the Province of Lanao del Norte with its member people’s organizations having a wide and organized mass base, the party-list that is topping the canvassing in Lanao Norte is that of YACAP- a party-list group of retired military generals backed by the Arroyo administration. It is also a known fact in the Province, that the Dimaporos also fielded their own party-list group, Action for Dynamic Development (ADD) with a relative as one of the nominees. Based on NAMFREL results as of May 19, 2007, YACAP garnered 13, 892 while ANAK-Mindanao got 11,679. In Iligan City, AMIN got 7,000 votes.
Breaking down the Barricades
The supporters of congressional candidate Vicente “varf” Belmonte continued their barricade at the legislative building of Iligan City Hall. There were presence of Angging Dimaporo’s supporters not far from where Belmonte’s supporters stayed. The COMELEC had given its final decision denying Mr. Belmonte’s petition and to have the provincial canvassing in the Provincial Capitol.In said decision, it also ordered for the Iligan City ballot boxes to be taken to the Province.
It was at 3:30 in the afternoon of May 22, 2007 when two platoons of riot police of Region X equipped with complete riot dispersal gears arrived at Iligan City Hall. The arrival of the said anti-riot police created an atmosphere of tension and apprehension among the supporters of Vicente “Varf” Belmonte.
The riot police, headed by a certain Col. Nuneza, were ordered to disperse the supporters of Belmonte barricading at the City Hall with maximum tolerance. As the riot police positioned themselves to disperse the supporters, the rattling of their batutas against their shields signaled the start of the dispersal. The riot police advance themselves by pushing the barricading supporters. Belmonte’s supporters on the other hand struggled not to let the riot police come and advanced its position and get into the entrance of the Legislative Hall.
The tension mounted when the riot police aggressively advance their position and started hitting Belmonte’s barricading supporters using their batutas and shields. Marlyn Masayon, one of Belmonte’s supporters said that the riot police were the one that started the provocations by hitting them with batutas. She even made mentioned of one riot police named Abatayo who allegedly started hitting her and the other supporters even if they did not do anything to deserve such act. Some of the supporters had started throwing stones against the advancing riot police which further aggravated the tension.
As observed by the human rights volunteers present in the place, four (4) of the riot police bear no name plates. When the riot police was asked who their officer in command was, they refused to answer. In fact, the Col. Nuneza they were saying as head of the riot police was in civilian attire. The riot police failed to catch a supporter of Dimaporo who carried with him a knife.
There were reported injured caused by the violent dispersals, among those where: Salamona Ramos, 50 yrs old of Upper Hinaplanon, Rolly Dagatan, age 22 of Tipanoy, Josephine Bustillo, age 43 of Lombagon Brgy. San Roque and Peter Quidlat, 26 yrs old of Canaway who was bought to Iligan City hospital. Quidlat’s medical record showed that he had a 2cm linear lacerated wound at the forehead, allegedly battered by the riot police.
The tension grew even further when Col. Rannes, Iligan City Chief of Police, announced that the Certificate of Canvass (COCs) will be taken to Tubod, Lanao del Norte for the Provincial canvassing despite the assurance he gave that it will be secured by the riot police of Region X that will also escort the bringing of the COCs for the Provincial Canvassing.
Few minutes after, when the supporters of Belmonte were pre-occupied guarding the front of the legislative building, unknown to everybody, the ballot boxes were being slipped at the back of the Legislative hall and taken to a vehicle. It was only when the supporters saw the police running and getting in to the vehicle they realized that the ballot boxes were already outside of the legislative building. There was an outburst of emotions and some of Belmonte’s women supporters started to cry. The riot police then followed and was transported by a six-wheeled army truck. Because of anger and disbelief, the supporters of Belmonte started throwing stones at the army truck.
When Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Ll. Cruz arrived at the City Hall, he was confronted with insults and mockeries from Belmonte’s supporters. The supporters said he was too late and the incident already happened.