MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine prosecutors have dismissed rebellion complaints against 59 men who were stopped by police and army troops at two checkpoints in the south and accused of attempting to join Islamic State-linked militants who laid siege to a southern city.
Senior government prosecutor Peter Ong said Thursday the complaints filed by the military against the Muslim men were dismissed because of a lack of strong evidence, and authorities were ordered to free all the men.
"It is clear that respondents were not committing the crime of rebellion or any crime at the time of their arrests," Ong and two other prosecutors said in their findings, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press.
The men, who traveled in two big groups, may have sparked the suspicion of troops and police at checkpoints because of the Marawi siege, "but suspicion alone is not sufficient to arrest, detain, charge and indict respondents," the prosecutors said.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the military respects the prosecutors' decision but that security officials still believe the men could "perhaps be eventually deployed to Marawi."
The ruling shows that the rule of law continues to work under martial law that was declared in the south by President Rodrigo Duterte to deal with the Marawi crisis, Padilla said, adding that the men were treated well and would be flown back to the south on an air force plane.
The 59 were taken into custody in southern Zamboanga city and Ipil town on July 25 amid intelligence reports that Muslim militants would attempt to reinforce the gunmen who attacked Marawi and were being bombarded by military airstrikes and ground assaults.
A lone witness said the mostly young Muslim men were to be given combat training and then deployed to reinforce the beleaguered militants, who were holding out in buildings and mosques in Marawi.
The arrested men strongly denied the allegation, saying they were recruited by a man who promised to bring them to a rebel camp for combat training and then help them be integrated into the military and police under a peace deal with the government.
Ong said he and the other prosecutors did not find the witness credible.
During a hearing at the Department of Justice on July 28, some of the arrested men, guarded by heavily armed police commandos, told reporters they were poor and jobless and in search of work and a better life.
The violence in Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the south, has left nearly 800 people dead, including more than 600 militants, and sparked concerns that Islamic State group militants were gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia by helping influence and arm local militants.
An estimated 40 gunmen remain in Marawi and are continuing to fight as troops advance in previously scenic lakeside communities that are now a smoldering wasteland of disfigured buildings.