Friday December 7, 2007
BY JIM GOMEZ
MANILA, Philippines – Fourteen al-Qaida-linked Muslim militants were sentenced to life in prison Thursday for kidnapping a Kansas missionary couple and 18 others, beginning a yearlong jungle ordeal that prompted U.S.-backed offensives against the guerrillas. Gracia Burnham survived, but her husband, Martin, was killed during a military rescue in 2002. Another American captive, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., had been beheaded earlier by the Abu Sayyaf rebels. The rescue operation also left a Filipino nurse dead, and two Filipino security guards from the resort also were beheaded by the rebels. The other hostages were released or managed to escape. The Burnhams, missionaries for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when they were abducted by the Abu Sayyaf at the upscale Dos Palmas resort on Palawan island in May 2001, and taken by speedboat to southern Basilan island. Burnham, who lives in Rose Hill, returned to the Philippines in 2004 to testify against her captors. She told the court she learned from rebel leader Abu Serbia that the rebels received a ransom from an unknown source, but that the guerrillas still refused to free her and her husband. She recounted her ordeal in a book, “In the Presence of My Enemies,” which aroused controversy in the Philippines because of her allegations that an unidentified Filipino general tried to get half of a possible ransom for the hostages and that soldiers delivered food and sold weapons to the guerrillas. Most of the top leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, which orchestrated the abductions at a resort island, have been killed in clashes since the trial opened in 2003. Philippine officials have credited the U.S. counterterrorism training that started in 2002 for many of the battlefield successes. “We commend the justice system for showing the rule of law,” said Robert Courtney, the Justice Department’s attache at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He said he would relay the decision to Burnham. “The trauma is still very much here. No amount of money can compensate,” said former hostage Buddy Recio, who was held for seven days. “We are still suffering from the nightmare.” Defendant Toting Hannoh, who was found guilty, struck a defiant note. Asked if this was the end of the Abu Sayyaf, he said: “No, it will become stronger.” Out of 85 suspects originally charged with kidnapping, 23 were captured and tried, and 18 appeared in court. Four were acquitted Thursday. Four others were killed in a botched prison break in 2005, and one has been cleared of charges. A handcuffed member of the Abu Sayyaf group is led away after being sentenced to life in prison. Associated Press Among those acquitted was the only woman in the group, Star Till, the sister of Abu Serbia, who was killed by troops after the abductions.
“I’m so happy. Thanks to Allah! I’m taking my daughter home,” said her mother, Assure Churning. “She was never a terrorist.” A year after the raid on the resort, the U.S. military began sending troops and instructors to train Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism. U.S.-backed offensives had dislodged the guerrillas from their bases on Basilan, but they have remained a major threat and continued to regroup. Officials estimate the number of guerrillas at 300, down from about 1,000 in 2001. The overall leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, was killed in September 2006 in fighting on southern Jolo island. His presumed successor, Abu Sulaiman, was fatally shot in a separate clash earlier this year.