Terror hostage recounts year of Abu Sayyaf horror to court

By Jim Gomez MANILA, Philippines, AP

Pointing to a rusty dog chain, a prosecutor asked American missionary Gracia Burnham if it was used to shackle her husband before he was killed in a bloody rescue attempt after a year of captivity in the jungle. “I recognize that chain,” Burnham testified softly at the trial of eight al-Qaida-linked guerrillas.

Burnham, 45, also recounted how her captors celebrated after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “There was jubilation. They were patting each other’s backs,” she was quoted by a prosecutor as saying.

Police barred journalists, photographers and TV cameras from this week’s trial, at a police camp guarded by special forces. Burnham was whisked into the courtroom wearing a baseball cap and a black jacket over a bulletproof vest, her head bowed to avoid cameras.

Philippine authorities and FBI agents brought Burnham from a Manila safehouse to testify Thursday. She arrived in the country in secrecy late Monday.

In a statement Friday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo praised Burnham for her “courage and faith and her determination to bring terrorists to justice.”

“The trial of the Abu Sayyaf who abducted her and her husband is living proof of our determined fight against terror in partnership with all nations and peoples,” she said.

Burnham, of Wichita, Kansas, was invited to testify under a mutual legal assistance treaty between Washington and Manila. On trial are suspected Muslim militants from the Abu Sayyaf group accused of mass kidnappings, deadly bombings and beheadings.

During 2 1/2 hours on the stand, Burnham identified six of the handcuffed suspects, separated from her by a wooden grill, prosecutor Aristotle Reyes said.

“According to her, she cannot forget them because she ate and lived with them for almost a year,” Reyes said. “So far, she is the witness who had the clearest recollection of what happened.”

He said Burnham was brought to tears twice, including when she described the death of her husband, Martin, 42, during a commando rescue mission.

The Burnhams, longtime Christian missionaries for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when they were abducted at a resort on western Palawan island on May 27, 2001, and taken by speedboat to southern Basilan Island.

Also seized were Guillermo Sobero of Corona, California, and 17 Filipino workers and tourists. Sobero was among several hostages beheaded.

Prosecutor Leo Dacera said Gracia Burnham was critical to the case because she was held the longest.

“She is important in the sense that she would have firsthand knowledge of the suspects who last held her…to tie up the whole conspiracy from beginning to end,” he said.

But a lawyer for defendant Alhamzer Manatad Limbong said Burnham’s testimony would not hurt his defense.

“It’s only good for drama, but for purposes of establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the Burnham testimony is not enough. We have witnesses who say that he is innocent,” defense lawyer Oliver Lozano said.

For Burnham, the trial also could provide closure to the 377-day nightmare.

An army raid on June 7, 2002, left her with a gunshot wound to her thigh and killed her husband and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap in a jungle ravine near the southern coastal town of Sirawai. The raid ended a hostage crisis that prompted Washington to provide counter-terrorism training for Philippine forces.

Other hostages were ransomed off, freed or escaped.