WASHINGTON – Fifteen years after leading a kidnapping that turned a family vacation into a hostage crisis, the former second-in-command of the Filipino terrorist group Abu Sayyaf was sentenced Friday to 23 years in an American prison.
Madhatta Haipe led about 40 members of Abu Sayyaf in abducting 16 vacationers at a mountainous tourist resort in the Southern Philippines during Christmas week 1995. The hostages included six children and two pregnant women and were released after five days when ransom was paid.
Haipe was prosecuted in the United States because four hostages were American citizens and a fifth was a permanent resident alien. Those five victims and others who flew in from as far away as the Philippines appeared in court during a five-hour hearing and tearfully described how they still are traumatized and suffer psychological problems.
Bien-Elize Roque, who was 11 when she was kidnapped along with her parents, said the experience stole her childhood and left her with nightmares of men in camouflage and an obsession with locking doors and windows. "You had no right to force me to grow up," she told Haipe.
Haipe, 48, evaded capture for more than a decade, mostly living in Malaysia as the owner of a string of small businesses and father after he said he left Abu Sayyaf in 1997. But prosecutor Gregg Maisel said, "The United States never forgot."
Maisel showed a video the vacationers took shortly before the gunmen attacked them at the Traan-Kine Spring Resort at Lake Sebu, 640 miles southeast of Manila. They gathered on a lush green mountainside, the children squealing in delight as they splashed in water pooled beneath a waterfall.
Maisel said the kidnappers appeared suddenly, wearing fatigues, wielding guns and knives and shouting at the tourists, "Get down, get down!" Two men who did not immediately obey were hit with rifle butts, and some had their hands and necks tied with rope to prevent escape.
All were forced to march up the mountain, some still wearing bathing suits without shoes, and were shown a large semicircular knife that would be used to behead them if they did not comply. The defendant, who went by "Commander Haipe," then questioned the hostages individually about their background and set a $38,000 ransom for one American family and $19,000 ransom for the release of the rest.
He then sent three women and a male driver to collect the money, rejecting their pleas to release the children. He threatened to kill their families if they did not comply or went to police.
One victim went by her initials V.L. when she spoke to the judge because she still lives in the Philippines and fears for her safety from Abu Sayyaf. She said she begged the kidnappers to release her two younger children, an 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter with asthma, even if they had to keep her 19-year-old daughter hostage.
"How can a mother forgive herself for choosing only two of her three children?" she said. But she was sent to collect ransom and says she still hears the wailing cries of her son begging to go with her as she walked away. "I am grateful that the long arm of the law finally got Mr. Haipe."
The kidnappers took one vacationer's video camera and recorded themselves while they waited for the ransom money. The families huddled under tents of blue tarp while their smiling young male captors showed off weapons including rifles and a bazooka.
Roque's mother, Helen, also was sent away to collect ransom. She said she desperately called family members, friends and co-workers and was able to borrow the $38,000 that Haipe demanded for her family. Maisel said only part of the money made it to the camp since interveners who delivered it apparently took a cut, but Haipe agreed to release the hostages anyway on the promise they would pay the rest later.
Haipe, wearing a gray striped prison jumpsuit, turned and addressed the victims as "friends" and said they were lucky because someone was standing for their justice. He said Muslims have been subject to tyranny, oppression and massacre in the Philippines without such justice, which is why he joined Abu Sayyaf.
He said he never agreed with Abu Sayyaf's practice of kidnapping because he found it "morally wrong and tactically counterproductive," and he eventually left the group over their violent tactics.
Abu Sayyaf is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations because its bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages made it into the Philippines' most brutal rebel group. It is suspected of having received funds and training from al-Qaida and gained notoriety in 2001 when gunmen kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, from another Philippine resort. One American was beheaded and another killed in a military rescue.
Haipe apologized to the victims and said he protected them from further injury, sexual assault and longer abductions that occurred in other Abu Sayyaf kidnappings.
"I am not implying that I deserve gratitude — no," he said. He noted that he did not fight the charges after his capture in Malaysia in June 2006 and immediately admitted his crime when he was extradited to the United States last year.
"I am here to accept responsibility," he said.