Manila - Eighteen Philippine Muslims wrongly accused of kidnapping and beheading Christian missionaries are to be freed from prison, where some have languished for over two years, the government said on Thursday.
They include five possible members of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf who had not apparently taken any part in the grisly crimes, said Peter Ong, vice-chairman of the justice department's counter-terrorism task force.
“There is no denying that members of the Abu Sayyaf Group are responsible for the kidnapping of six members of Jehovah's Witnesses on August 20, 2002,” Ong said in a written report.
“However, we note the indiscriminate arrest of alleged members of the (Abu Sayyaf), even those who did not participate in the kidnapping.”
Chief government prosecutor Claro Arellano endorsed the report and ordered 18 of the 21 detained suspects in the case to be freed, Ong said.
Law enforcers who took part in the bungled arrests are to be investigated, he added.
Ong said the men were arrested separately in several southern islands between September 2010 and July 2012 for the abductions of the six Filipino missionaries, two of whom were later beheaded.
State witnesses including one of the former hostages identified three of the 21 suspects as having taken part in either the kidnappings or the beheadings, he said.
Ong said five of the 18 others “may” be Abu Sayyaf members but there was not enough evidence to show they took part in the crimes, while for the rest it was a case of mistaken identity.
Abu Sayyaf, founded using seed money from al-Qaeda in the 1990s, are blamed for the worst terror attacks in the country.
They kidnapped the missionaries when the six went to the Abu Sayyaf southern stronghold of Jolo island to sell cosmetic products.
Two male hostages were beheaded within a day of their abduction while the rest, all women, escaped eight months later, officials have said.