Manila, July 14, 2003 By Jose Rodel Clapano (Star) Malacañang brushed aside yesterday claims by opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara that businessman Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco is a victim of an Arroyo administration-inspired "squeeze play."

In a radio interview, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye insisted that there is no politics behind the Sandiganbayan’s ruling that Cojuangco’s 95,304 shares in the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), which allegedly came from the government’s 72.2 percent stake in the bank, were "conclusively owned by the Republic of the Philippines."

Bunye said that the coconut levy case had been pending for the last 16 years in the Sandiganbayan and all the defendants in the case, including Cojuangco, were given ample time to explain their side.

Bunye pointed out that in December 2001, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that declared the coconut levy funds "prima facie public funds."

"Based on this ruling, the Sandiganbayan was tasked to make a decision on the eight coconut levy-related cases, including the ownership of shares in the coconut levy. The accusations that there is politics in the Sandiganbayan’s decision is very much far-fetched because the case has long been pending in court," Bunye said.

He added that the Supreme Court’s December 2001 ruling also required the Sandiganbayan to decide on the coconut levy case within six months.

"Maybe because of the maneuverings, there was this delay, which also indicates that this case underwent long and thorough processes," Bunye said.

He said that President Arroyo will be leaving for the Visayas next week to release benefits due to some "identified beneficiaries of the coconut levy fund."

Earlier, Angara said that "timing and motivation" of the anti-graft court ruling on Cojuangco’s UCPB shares "are suspect."

"It shows that the administration is vindictive and is after him," he said.

Angara, president of Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), noted that the case involving coconut levy funds has been pending for more than 16 years, but that it was decided only now because Cojuangco wants to run for president again.

But he pointed out that the Sandiganbayan decision won’t adversely affect the billionaire businessman and client of the famous law office he founded since Cojuangco was claiming ownership to only 20 percent of the coconut levy funds.

Angara also said the businessman’s ongoing consultations "are clear signs of his pursuits of the highest position in the land."

He said the squeeze play being applied on him would prompt him to reveal his decision soon.

Angara also said most members of his LDP, the dominant opposition party, would want to choose Cojuangco as their standard-bearer in next year’s presidential elections.

Cojuangco is conducting consultations with party members on who they want to be their presidential candidate. He was in Mindanao last Friday.

Angara admitted that Cojuangco, chairman of food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp. is also his personal preference.

Angara said besides Cojuangco, the field of choice of LDP members include their party mate Sen. Panfilo Lacson and actor Fernando Poe Jr., if the latter decides to join the presidential race.

Bunye: History will judge RP in backing US-led war on Iraq

Malacañang sought yesterday to deflect criticism of President Arroyo’s support for the United States-led Iraq war as a scandal over false claims about Baghdad’s nuclear program grew in Washington.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Philippine officials were prepared to explain to the public its stand on the war, after Sen. Manuel Villar accused the government of supporting a war that appeared to have no basis.

"What happened in Iraq has already happened and our President decided based on what she had thought was correct," Bunye told local radio. "History will judge this decision."

US President George W. Bush has come under pressure over revelations that his Jan. 28 address to the nation contained false claims that the Saddam regime sought to buy nuclear material from Africa.

The allegations were used as part justification to launch the war.

Mrs. Arroyo was a staunch backer of the war, echoing claims by Bush that it was necessary to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction.

Her support was rewarded by Bush in May, when Washington promoted the Philippines to major non-NATO ally and promised more military aid.

But the US war in Iraq remained largely unpopular in the Philippines, with many lawmakers, the influential Catholic Church and civic groups questioning its legitimacy.

Villar, who is the chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, is studying the possibility of summoning Palace aides to a Senate investigation for their wrong advice to the President to support the US attack on Iraq.

He said the government’s support for the war on Iraq has embarrassed the country, following the findings of United Nations weapons inspectors that the intelligence documents used by the US and Britain as basis for attacking Iraq were forged.

"It is shameful that our government supported a war that had no basis. The government should be questioned on why it gave its all-out support to the war on Iraq," Villar said in a statement.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said he would welcome an investigation.

He also defended Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to support the war.

"It gained positive reaction from the people, and one indication there is the increase of the popularity of President Arroyo," Golez said.

"Although there are some technicalities being raised against President Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq, we have to look at the general picture on the result of the US war on Iraq. We must consider right now the situation of the world."

Villar pointed out that American and British officials are now facing criticism in their home countries for failing to find any weapon of mass destruction weeks after the Saddam regime was dismantled.

Villar, however, quickly dismissed suggestions that the Philippines should apologize to Iraq for supporting the war.

"The Americans are now running Iraq. So if we apologize to Iraq, we would be apologizing to the US government," he said.

Villar said the government should learn from this incident that it should not be too eager to meddle in the affairs of other countries.

"Let us mind our own problems. If a foreign nation has a conflict with another country, let it handle its own problem. We have too many problems that need government attention," he said.

Viillar added that the administration can no longer justify its plan to send a Philippine peacekeeping force to Iraq since the attack was grounded on forged intelligence documents.

"Our government should scrap its plan. The lives of Filipino volunteers will be at risk," he said, adding that he has consistently urged the government to defer its plan to send a 175-member mission to Iraq until his committee concludes an ongoing investigation into the matter.

Villar cited that there is a different kind of war going on in Iraq — 28 American and six British soldiers have been killed since the US government declared the end of major combat operations last May 1. AFP, Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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