Zamboanga, Philippines – With the largest ever mobilisation of government troops under way against Abu Sayyaf fighters in the southern Philippines, an accused member of the armed group has appeared in court.
Abner Muloc, known as “Commander Red Eye” by the Philippines military, was flanked by around two dozen armed security personnel during his hearing on Thursday in Dipolog City, on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, where he denied involvement in the kidnapping of a former Italian priest last year.
Through his lawyer, Muloc, with his distinctive red, bloodshot, right eye, asked to be released temporarily, saying there was “no case for the prosecution” to detain him related to the kidnapping of Italian Ronaldo del Torchio, who was abducted in October 2015.
Authorities accuse Muloc of assisting Abu Sayyaf kidnappers “select and stalk” the former Italian priest who owned a restaurant in Dipolog. The Italian was released after six months in captivity, and after a ransom was reportedly paid.
Muloc, also known as Sehar Muloc, was arrested in June 2016, two months after del Torchio was released by Abu Sayyaf from their stronghold in the Sulu archipelago, where an ongoing military offensive has killed at least 32 fighters and left more than a dozen government soldiers dead.
Abu Sayyaf, whose name translates as “Bearer of the Sword”, has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and has been involved in a spate of kidnapping cases in Muslim-majority Sulu and elsewhere in the southern Philippines.
The group emerged in the early 1990s as an offshoot of a separatist rebellion being fought by
minority Moro Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. Conducting bombings, kidnappings, beheadings and extortion, Abu Sayyaf’s kidnap-for-ransom operations have become a lucrative business for the group.
The group was also blamed for a bombing last week that left 14 people dead in Davao City, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
The bombing, which occurred as the military pressed its attack in Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold in Sulu, prompted Duterte to declare a nationwide “state of lawless violence”.
The president also ordered the deployment of thousands more troops to hunt and finally destroy Abu Sayyaf forces in Sulu. The Philippine navy has also reportedly set up a naval blockade around the island chain to prevent any of the fighters from escaping.
With the country on a heightened state of alert since the Davao bombing, Muloc’s appearance in court on Thursday prompted several court personnel to skip work.
Some feared that Abu Sayyaf might attack and attempt to free the “high-value” defendant, three court staff told Al Jazeera.
Inside the court, armed guards kept close watch as Muloc sat with other defendants in handcuffs.
Listening to the back-and-forth between his lawyer, a government prosecutor and the judge, Muloc, who was wearing a prison-issued yellow t-shirt, jeans and red rubber sandals, stared mostly in the direction of the judge, occasionally bowing his head.
“I can tell you straight in the eyes that he is not a leader, or member of the Abu Sayyaf,”Muloc’s wife, Sarifa, told Al Jazeera.
Sarifa and Muloc’s sisters, Nur-Ana and Selma, said his arrest and detention were politically motivated.
“He was not involved in the abduction,” Sarifa said, adding that her husband was an easy fall guy for the military because he was a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, signed a peace agreement with the government in 2014. That deal, however, stalled following the death of several government special forces in during a botched operation in 2015.
Nur-Ana said her brother was maliciously identified as a “terrorist” by his “enemies”, who were jealous of his business dealings with the local government.
“If we are terrorists, then we would not be even here showing our face in public,” Nur-Ana told Al Jazeera, adding that authorities should review the CCTV footage, which recorded the abduction of del Torchio and would exonerate her brother.
Following his arrest in June, Major Filemon Tan Jr, spokesperson of the Philippine Army, told reporters that Muloc had direct links to Abu Sayyaf.
The next hearing of the kidnapping case against Muloc is set for November.
In the meantime, President Duterte’s campaign against Abu Sayyaf appears to show no sign of slowing.
Speaking in Laos for a summit of regional leaders on Monday, Duterte said that he would “eat” Abu Sayyaf “alive, raw”.