Fri, 18 Jul 2003

Out with Ebdane for Al-Ghozi

Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asia News Network, Manila

This early, speculation is rife that Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, the self-confessed mastermind of the 2000 Rizal Day blasts, was spirited out and had not merely "escaped" with two Abu Sayyaf members before dawn Monday. For it is unimaginable for Al-Ghozi to have escaped a tightly guarded cell where anybody has to pass through at least three security clearances before getting out.

What is even more shocking is that it happened right inside Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the detention center was that of the Intelligence Group (IG). The IG is the PNP's elite of the elite, and its office complex, a camp within a camp. As the red-faced PNP Dir. Gen.Hermogenes Ebdane has admitted, "it is impossible for someone to get out of the cell without assistance from the other side of the door."

The jailbreak is unforgivable. It is a black eye not only to Philippine efforts to clamp down on terrorism, but to the global coalition where the country has, until the other day, stood tall for being able to neutralize terrorists like Al-Ghozi. That it happened during the state visit of Australian Prime Minister John Howard should prompt President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take more drastic measures.

There she was, strengthening the anti-terror alliance with Howard, while her police officials were sleeping on the job. This propensity for big words and big speeches has caught up with her. Recently, she ordered the construction of more jails to house drug pushers. Now that would be absurd when even Camp Crame can't keep its jails secure.

Howard must have been discomfited by the surprise welcome. Following the Bali blasts, the feisty premier said he wanted "preemptive strikes" on countries harboring terrorists. He might as well train his missiles on Camp Crame for providing cozy free board and lodging to suspected terrorists and engineering their escape. Camp Crame has a curious history of high-profile jailbreak that began with Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani in 1995.

Monday's escape was in fact the third under Ebdane's very nose. In June last year, Faisal Marohombsar, chieftain of the notorious Pentagon gang, bolted from the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (NAKTAF) headquarters, along with his aide, Abdul Macaumbang, and Rolando Patinio, prime suspect in the assassination of Baron Cervantes. Ebdane was the NAKTAF head at that time; he was No. 2 in the police hierarchy. Marohombsar then taunted the PNP that he escaped by changing the padlocks. Much later, the escapees were killed in separate shootouts.

Three months later, a suspected big-time drug trafficker, Henry Tan, sawed off the window grills of his cell inside the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), climbed up the adjoining wall, and jumped to freedom.

Al-Ghozi is not an ordinary prisoner. He is an international terrorist, a proud lieutenant of the al-Qaeda-linked Jamaah Islamiyah, willing to die -- and kill -- for his cause and, therefore, high-risk. Al-Ghozi must be armed and dangerous by now, considering he was caught with explosives and millions in cash when first arrested in February last year.

Worse, he brought along Abdulmukim Edris, alleged Abu Sayyaf demolition expert who was supposed to stage a repeat of the deadly Rizal Day bombings, perhaps, among other places, at the Australian Embassy.

Ebdane's immediate relief of IG Chief Superintendent Jesus Versoza is only proper. But he should have gone a step further by offering to resign to allow her boss, and the nation as well, to save face. Come to think of it, Ebdane has been a failure by Ms Macapagal's standards. He failed to meet the one-year deadline to annihilate 21 kidnap gangs. He failed to sustain the short-lived campaign versus gambling and loose firearms.

On top of Monday's blunder, Ebdane informed the President of the escape only at 1 p.m., or 10 hours after the fact. Keeping the President clueless for that long is no less than an affront to the appointing power. It reflects the lack of control and discipline down the line, traits the PNP is not exactly famous for. Obviously, that culture has gone up Ebdane's head. For that alone, his head must roll.