MANILA, May 29, 2008 (STAR) By Edu Punay - A lawyer and complainant in criminal charges filed against First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo over alleged anomalies in the botched $329-million national broadband network (NBN) deal has pushed for immunity from prosecution for Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr. and other key witnesses before the Ombudsman.

Lawyer Ernesto Francisco Jr., one of the petitioners in four of the seven NBN-related cases in which the presidential spouse was named a respondent, sought immunity for witnesses at the resumption of the preliminary investigation by the anti-graft body on the ZTE deal yesterday.

Francisco said witnesses have the right to apply for immunity from prosecution under Presidential Decree 749 and Rule 5 of Administrative Order No. 7 of Office of the Ombudsman to encourage and protect whistleblowers.

The lawyer raised the rule on immunity “to give said witnesses the option to apply for immunity in the future if they so desire.”

Apart from Lozada, other witnesses who appeared before the investigating panel of the Ombudsman were businessman Jose De Venecia III, Engr. Dante Madriaga, and Philippine STAR columnist Jarius Bondoc.

The case of the son of ousted House Speaker Jose De Venecia Jr., however, was different as he was named respondent in one of the seven cases on the NBN deal.

“If he applies for immunity from prosecution, dismissal of charges against him would be possible,” Francisco said.

The lawyer raised the reservation on immunity from suits for Lozada, who had testimonies in the Senate that could be self-incriminating.

He was referring to Lozada’s answers to the question of Senator Miriam Santiago on a project involving the planting of jatropha at the time the Senate witness was president of the Philippine Forest Corp.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had earlier filed graft charges against Lozada for the project.

The four key witnesses in the NBN scandal against Mr. Arroyo appeared before the Ombudsman panel, led by Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez III, to affirm and make official their testimonies in the Senate investigation.

But the affirmation of testimonies was withheld due to apparent “lack of a technical procedure.”

When the hearing started at 9:30 a.m., the investigating panel and counsels of both witnesses and accused were debating on how the affirmation should be done.

Lawyers of witnesses suggested that the witnesses just affirm and sign every page of the 5,000-page transcript transmitted to the Ombudsman by the Senate. But lawyer Ruy Rondain, counsel for the First Gentleman, objected, arguing that it would be inconvenient for both parties if they use all testimonies in the Senate inquiry.

“If they just reaffirm the transcript page-by-page, then I will ask for 120 days to comment on those testimonies.”

After consulting with the investigating panel for about 20 minutes, counsels for both sides agreed to have the testimonies summarized in affidavits from each witness.

The panel gave the witnesses seven days to review transcripts of their respective testimonies in the Senate hearing and personally submit on June 5 affidavits identifying which specific pages of the document they wish to affirm.

The graft investigators then tentatively set on June 18 the next hearing on the NBN-related cases.

Where is Abalos?

The Ombudsman also cited the absence in yesterday’s hearing of former Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos, who was also called by the panel to affirm his testimony before the Senate inquiry.

On request of Francisco, Abalos was ordered by the panel to explain within five days why he failed to attend the hearing when it was found that he received the subpoena last May 17.

If the former elections chief fails to justify his absence, investigators said they would cite him for contempt.

Abalos is reportedly on a Caribbean cruise with his wife. His lawyer Gabriel Villareal represented him in the hearing.

Commission on Higher Education chairman Romulo Neri also failed to attend the hearing as ordered by the panel. But unlike Abalos, he was not warned of contempt considering the motion for reconsideration filed by his lawyer.

The testimonies of witnesses in the NBN scandal were said to be crucial in the criminal cases being investigated by the Ombudsman. Francisco claimed that they are enough for the charges against Mr. Arroyo and Abalos to advance to the Sandiganbayan.

“I am certain that if all testimonies are considered in their entirety, the Ombudsman will have no choice but to find probable cause against Mr. Arroyo and Mr. Abalos and charge them before the Sandiganbayan,” Francisco stressed.

De Venecia, son of former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., testified during a Senate hearing on the NBN controversy on Sept. 18 last year and showed how Mr. Arroyo shouted and ordered him to “back-off” as Abalos looked on during a meeting at the Wack-Wack Golf and Country Club in Mandaluyong City.

Neri disclosed at a Senate hearing also last September that Abalos had offered him a P200-million bribe to endorse the ZTE proposal. He was then the director general of the National Economic and Development Authority, the agency that reviews government projects.

Lozada explained how Mr. Arroyo and Abalos were linked to the NBN deal with Chinese ZTE Corp.

It was Bondoc who first exposed the supposed irregularities in the NBN deal in his column Gotcha! in The Philippine STAR.

In the complaints against him, Arroyo was being held accountable for violating the anti-graft law for allegedly coercing De Venecia into withdrawing his offer to undertake the NBN project and for intervening directly or indirectly in a business contract with the government.

In his 20-page defense, Mr. Arroyo claimed that charges against him were “replete with innuendos, speculations and false assumptions.”

The First Gentleman denied accusations that he threatened de Venecia III during the meeting at Wack-Wack Golf.

“I never pointed a finger at De Venecia and I never told him to back off. I would not have. First, that may have been the first time I met him. I am not so uncouth as to pick a fight with someone I have just met,” he stressed in his affidavit.

‘Speak the truth‘

Meanwhile, Lozada yesterday joined appeals to former House Speaker Jose De Venecia Jr. to testify before the Senate and reveal what he knows about the bribery scandal.

Lozada urged De Venecia to “speak the truth first above all.”

“This goes not only for Joe De Venecia, but also other people who hold a piece of the truth. All I can say is that they should fear God and not other people, because we Filipinos really need the fear of God at these times,” Lozada said.

Opposition and church leaders had earlier urged De Venecia to testify before the Senate on the NBN scandal. But the former House speaker, whose ties with President Arroyo had been gravely affected by the bribery controversy, said he would only speak “at the proper forum at the proper time.”

De Venecia reportedly hinted that his testimony would make an impact that could aggravate the situation of the country currently facing food and energy crises.

But Palace officials downplayed his threat, saying they are not afraid of his pending “exposé” on the NBN deal.

This as Lozada said he is unfazed by the cut in financial support from the Senate and the filing of graft charges against him by the government.

He vowed to pursue his nationwide campaign for truth.

“I am ready to face charges. Wala din naman akong tampo sa Senado. They reduced my security, but the religious organizations behind me are taking care of that,” he stressed.

The Senate earlier reduced the number of security aides assigned to Lozada and his family from seven to four after Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile complained about the expenses for food, travel, and overtime pay for bodyguards of Lozada and another witness, Dante Madriaga, that ballooned to almost P2 million the past three months.

In yesterday’s hearing at the Ombudsman, Lozada’s bodyguards were absent. He was accompanied by a nun and staff from his major supporter, the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP).

He also did not have counsel with him.

The AMRSP said it has already raised P2,736,926.96 in sanctuary funds that would be used to support Lozada and provide for necessary legal expenses, especially now that he has been charged by the NBI for alleged graft.

The religious group said they would resume the caravan for truth to explain to students nationwide the truth behind the NBN controversy.

Lozada is set to visit the Ateneo De Manila University and University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City on May 30 as part of his campus tour.

An AMRSP official said Lozada would also bring his campaign for truth to the Bicol region on June 17 and 18.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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