, FEBRUARY 12, 2007 (STAR) By Christina Mendez Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Environment Secretary Lito Atienza denied yesterday dragging President Arroyo’s name in a conversation with Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr. after the the latter was taken from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, saying it was not “Ma’am” but “Manny” whom he was referring to.

Testifying before the Senate yesterday, Atienza said “Manny” is Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Huberto Gaite.

“I never mentioned the name ‘Ma’am’ in my official functions in getting him protected. I was acting on my own,” Atienza said, stressing that there was no kidnapping at all from the time Lozada arrived at the airport until he was turned over to his family who sought refuge at the La Salle dormitory in Greenhills, San Juan.

Lozada told the Senate last Friday of how Atienza spoke to him about the need to seek advice first from “Ma’am” and “ES” on what Lozada should expect next after he was escorted out of a high-security area at the airport.

Lozada said Atienza called him up and asked him not to panic shortly after he was taken from the airport, saying the men who took custody of him were there to protect him.

“Mag-uusap kami ni ES and ni Ma’am (I’ll talk to ES and to Ma’am.”), Lozada quoted Atienza as telling him. Atienza later admitted ES was Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita. Lozada said he presumed “Ma’m” was Mrs. Arroyo.

Gaite also testified yesterday that he merely assisted Lozada in finding possible legal remedies for the Senate’s arrest order on Lozada.

In yesterday’s hearing, Atienza said it was Lozada who sought security protection. Atienza said Lozada was “emotionally distressed and on the verge of tears” when they met prior to Lozada’s flight to Hong Kong some two weeks ago.

“Mr. Lozada sought my help, I granted it. Mr. Lozada was in Hong Kong and I thought he was on his way to London. When he said he was still in Hong Kong, it surprised me,” Atienza said.

Atienza said Lozada informed him of his wish to cancel his trip to London, where he was scheduled to attend a seminar on reforestation and jathropa development, and go back to the country.

It was upon learning of Lozada’s decision to go back to the country that prompted Atienza to call up Philippine National Police chief Director General Avelino Razon to request for protection for Lozada, beginning at the airport.

“He was not made incommunicado. There was no force used on him. He was able to go to La Salle freely that night,” Atienza said of Lozada.

“Gentlemen, ladies, the incident at the airport and from that time up to the end and where we are now, I am stressing that there was no kidnapping at all,” Atienza said.

Atienza said he went to the Senate to clear his name, which he said he has kept untainted for 36 years since he entered politics.

“I feel violated by all this. My family has suffered, people who believed in me may be getting bothered by this,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gaite said Lozada decided to leave the country to avoid testifying before the Senate on the alleged anomalies in the botched national broadband network deal with ZTE Corp. of China.

Gaite stressed he did send Lozada to London on Jan. 30, the day the latter was supposed to face a Senate probe on the ZTE mess.

“I did not instruct him to go abroad. I did not prepare his travel papers or his flight (papers),” Gaite told senators.

Atienza said he had no prior knowledge that Lozada was supposed to go to London to attend a seminar. He said he was merely notified of Lozada’s plans later on.

Lozada headed Philippine Forest Corp., an attached agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Airport officials also denied violating security rules to spirit Lozada out of the airport, eluding a group of Senate security personnel and journalists waiting for him.

“There was no violation of security procedure or any breach of security,” Angel Atutubo, head of airport security, told senators. “I am proud to say airport security is compliant with international aviation standards.”

But, Lozada maintained that he was taken against his will. “I did not feel they were my protectors,” he told senators. “And when they said I was free to move around, that’s not true.”

Last Friday, Lozada told a Senate inquiry that contracts with the Philippine government are usually overpriced by at least 20 percent to facilitate kickbacks.

In an emotional statement, Lozada reiterated previous allegations that former top elections chief Benjamin Abalos had demanded $130 million as his cut for the deal with ZTE.

But he said he had no evidence that President Arroyo’s husband was involved in the deal although Abalos bragged about making him facilitate a loan deal with China for the NBN project.

PNP insists no kidnapping

Razon insisted Lozada was never kidnapped and that the police should even be praised because the Senate witness is still alive.

“Let it be clear that there was no kidnapping nor abduction, the Police Security and Protection Office provided security for Lozada upon Lozada’s request,” Razon told the senators.

“The PNP did not hold him, but were in fact securing his person. Lozada went with the PNP out of his own free will. Lozada was free to use his cell phone all the time. Lozada was free to leave the PNP at anytime,” Razon said.

“In fact, up to the evening of Feb. 6, 2008, Lozada did not want to appear before the Senate. Lozada was brought by the PSPO to La Salle at his expressed request where his family was waiting,” he told the Senate Blue Ribbon committee chaired by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano.

The Senate committees on trade and on defense, chaired respectively by Sen. Manuel Roxas II and Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, are also involved in the NBN probe.

He reiterated that PNP has accomplished its mission to keep Lozada alive and unharmed.

“The PNP initially kept silent regarding Lozada’s whereabouts for security reasons. The PNP successfully accomplished its mission, Mr. Lozada is alive and well,” he stressed.

“The police drew the flak despite its highest degree of professionalism to guard the safety of Lozada upon his arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Feb. 6,” he lamented.

“He was a free man. He was free to use his cell phone all the time. He was free to leave the PNP any time he wanted to,” Razon pointed out.

He said it was the mandate of PNP to safeguard anyone whose life is in danger.

“Environment Secretary Lito Atienza requested police assistance to escort Lozada, who feared for his life so we provided him with the security,” he noted.

He said the PNP even brought Lozada to La Salle Greenhills dormitory to meet with his wife and children on Feb. 7 at around 4 p.m.

“I continued to monitor the situation on Feb. 6, 2008 through Chief Superintendent Romeo Hilomen. I understand that the PSPO continued to provide Mr. Lozada with security for that day, that Mr. Lozada was able to speak with his lawyer and with former secretary Mike Defensor,” he said. “Mr. Lozada was alive and well. He can talk to the senators,” he stressed.

Palace unperturbed

Malacańang said Lozada’s testimony has diminished his credibility.

“The people are beginning to doubt his statements,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye told reporters yesterday.

He said the hearing showed that government officials who took custody of Lozada acted in “good faith and were after the safety of witness.”

“It begins to appear that the previous testimony of the witness is full of inconsistencies, the circumstances which would lead one to conclude that an abduction or a kidnapping has taken place have been refuted,” Bunye said.

He also chided members of the Lozada family for filing writs of habeas corpus and amparo despite having already met the witness.

“It also appears that there is some bad faith on the part of those who filed the writ for habeas corpus and writ of amparo considering that Mr. Lozada was already in the custody or in the protection of the La Salle brothers, and that fact is known to the family, and I would assume the parties who filed the writ, and yet they still went ahead,” he said. “I believe this should be properly explained.”

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Lorelei Fajardo, for her part, said President Arroyo was affected by the ZTE scandal because “she is also human.”

But Mrs. Arroyo proceeded with her public engagements yesterday despite the flare-up of emotions at the Senate hearing.

She addressed the forum of chief executive officers at the e-Services Globalsourcing Conference at the SMX Convention Center at Pasay City.

In her speech, she cited the country’s economic gains boosted by the business processing outsourcing industry,

From Pasay City, she motored to San Fernando City, Pampanga to attend the centennial celebration of the Pampanga High School, where she was met by about 100 well-wishers.

From there, Mrs. Arroyo went to the town of Mexico for the groundbreaking of the San Jose Malino-anao Bridge where hundreds of supporters met her.

Presidential son and Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo told reporters that he was not bothered by the allegations against the First Family since there was no evidence.

The younger Arroyo said First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo was in Manila but he was not sure whether his father was monitoring the developments in the Senate. “Obviously all these are politically-motivated,” he said. – with Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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