GMA REVIEWING DROP OF AMPATUAN MURDER CHARGES / PROSECUTORS WALKOUT

 

MANILA, APRIL 20, 2010
(STAR) (Xinhua) - President Arroyo is "reviewing" possible actions to take in connection with the Department of Justice ruling clearing two members of the Ampatuan clan from multiple murder charges, a Philippine official said on Monday.

In a news briefing, Gary Olivar, a deputy presidential spokesperson of the Philippines, said that Mrs. Arroyo is treading very carefully on the issue since it involves an "active" court case.

Asked whether Arroyo would order an Office of the President review of the decision made by Justice Secretary Alberto Agra, Olivar said, "She (Arroyo) is reviewing what must be done."

On the possibility of an Office of the President reversal of the Department of Justice ruling, Olivar said "anything is possible."

"I guess we should give her(Arroyo) enough time to make sure that she is doing the right thing before she does it. She has to weigh it carefully," he added.

Agra ordered state prosecutors to drop the murder indictments against Zaldy Ampatuan, the suspended governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Mayor Akmad Ampatuan Sr. late Friday, sparkling extensive protests in this south-eastern Asian country.

The two are among 197 people facing murder charges for the slaying of 57 people including 32 media workers in an ambush in Maguindanao province in November last year.

A total of 23 members of the Ampatuan clan have been charged with murder. Six of them are now detained, including the patriarch, Andal Sr., and his sons - Andal Jr., Zaldy and Sajid.

Prosecutors assail massacre resolution By Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) Updated April 20, 2010 12:00 AM

Photo is loading... Chief State Prosecutor Claro Arellano (right) leads a protest by state prosecutors over a resolution absolving two members of the Ampatuan clan in the Maguindanao massacre. EDD GUMBAN]

MANILA, Philippines - Prosecutors walked out of their offices yesterday to protest Justice Secretary Alberto Agra’s clearing of two members of the Ampatuan clan in the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao last November.

The furor over Agra’s decision has even reached the United States, which urged the Philippines “to spare no effort in investigating and prosecuting these terrible crimes in order to bring all those responsible to justice.”

“We continue to watch developments in this case very closely. We have condemned the massacre in Maguindanao in the strongest possible terms,” said US embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson.

In a resolution issued last Friday, Agra said there was no evidence to prove that Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan and cousin Mamasapano Mayor Akmad Ampatuan had conspired with the other accused in killing members and supporters of a rival political clan, as well as some lawyers and journalists.

The multiple murder charges against the Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr. and his son Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Jr. remain.

“We are deeply concerned that the resolution will all the more convince a long skeptical public that our criminal justice system is impotent when the accused are politically influential,” chief state prosecutor Claro Arellano said.

“With all due respect (to Secretary Agra), we still believe that there was probable cause in the case,” Arellano said.

Speaking from Baguio City, Agra warned that he would replace the members of the prosecution panel if they continue to defy his order.

Agra was in Baguio City for the public interview of candidates for the post of chief justice by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). As Justice secretary, Agra is ex-officio member of the JBC.

Arellano said state prosecutors “earnestly and respectfully request” Agra to review his resolution or “dishonor the primary reason for which our institution exists and its very name.”

Arellano said that despite Agra’s resolution, they would not file with the Quezon City Regional Trial Court a motion to dismiss the multiple murder charges against the Ampatuans.

“We will defer any motion before the court hearing the murder case,” Arellano said.

“It is a rule in evidence that positive identification by a witness prevails over a negative assertion,” Arellano said, referring to Kenny Dalandag, whose testimony was rebuffed by Agra in his resolution.

“The resolution basically redefined the plain and ordinary meaning of ‘probable cause’,” he said.

Arellano said prosecutors could not understand why Agra had given more weight to documentary evidence submitted by Zaldy like plane tickets, flight manifests and phone statements to prove his absence from Maguinadanao at the time of the massacre, than to Dalandag’s testimony.

“In a conspiracy indictment, where the accused is a principal by inducement, his physical presence at the crime scene is not even necessary,” Arellano explained.

He said he found it strange that the Justice chief cleared the two Ampatuans on the same day they were being transferred from General Santos City and Davao City to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City on orders of Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes.

“The court detains, the prosecution arm absolves. The Department of Justice is supposed to be the sword and shield of law and order,” the chief prosecutor said.

‘So be it’

Sought for comment on Agra’s warning to replace the prosecutors for their defiance, Assistant Chief State

Prosecutor Richard Fadullon said they were ready for the worst.

“There’s already that danger. If that is the implication of this action, then so be it,” he said in a press briefing.

Fadullon stressed that they were determined to pursue the case against the other accused in court.

“We have to be fair… The case does not end with the exclusion of the two accused,” he said.

“The panel of prosecutors should have been informed first before he (Agra) issued that resolution,” he said.

“We believe that there should have been a more in-depth study of the appeal before it was granted,” Fadullon said.

He also rejected advice from lawyer Harry Roque that Department of Justice (DOJ) fiscals relinquish the case in favor of private prosecutors.

Roque, private counsel for some families of the victims, said filing a motion for reconsideration before Agra’s office might be a “useless exercise.”

He said private prosecutors would block any effort to have the Quezon City court dismiss the case against the two Amapatuans. He also said they might contest Agra’s ruling before the Court of Appeals.

Firm on decision

Agra, meanwhile, defended his position and rejected calls for his resignation. He also ruled out punishing the prosecutors unless they continue to remain defiant.

“I stand by my decision. If she (Mrs. Arroyo) removes me I don’t have to resign if she no longer trusts me. If she feels I’m not doing my job – although I believe that I have been dedicated to my two jobs – then I can take my vacation sooner,” he said.

“Although many do not agree, the evidence showing conspiracy was weak while the alibi was strong,” he said.

“I am the reviewing authority and this is the only case where I did this. There are close to 10,000 pending petitions for review and motions for reconsideration before me and some of them I upheld while some I reversed. If the prosecutors do not agree with my position, I have the reviewing authority,” he stressed.

Agra also stressed that he was not duty bound to inform his prosecutors of his resolutions.

“I would want to be impartial in my review of petitions filed before my office and therefore, I don’t want to be influenced by any of the prosecutors. Insofar as Fadullon is concerned, I consulted him a day before I released the decision,” he said.

He said he even met with families of the victims a day before the resolution was handed down.

He also revealed that a “leading prosecutor” reviewed the controversial resolution, but declined to name the prosecutor.

Hands off

President Arroyo is unlikely to intervene in the controversy, according to a spokesman.

“Whether she agrees or not, what should she do next, what she should say, these are the things I’m sure she will think about thoroughly. She’s the President so that’s something she will think long and hard about,” Olivar said.

When asked whether Agra’s decision could be reversed, he said: “Anything is possible. I guess we should give her enough time to make sure that she is doing the right thing before she does it. She has to weigh things carefully,” Olivar said.

He also appealed to critics for sobriety. “If we disagree with the DOJ’s decision, we are certainly free to debate or we are free to take it to the streets – as some people are already doing – but let us try to confine ourselves to questions of law and questions of fact,” he said.

Andal Sr.’s appeal

As he tried to parry criticism over his resolution, the DOJ chief revealed to Channel 5 that the principal accused, Andal Sr., had also filed a motion for reconsideration to have the murder charges against him dropped.

Agra said the petition was filed at the same time as that of Zaldy and Akmad. Agra said the DOJ would come out with a decision on the petition of Andal Sr. before June 30.

University of the East College of Law Dean Amado Valdez told Channel 5 that Agra’s decision to clear Zaldy and Akmad has hurt the credibility of Dalandag as witness and may bolster Andal Sr.’s defense.

Election ‘duties’

Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who lost his wife and relatives in the massacre, is linking efforts to have Zaldy cleared to possible manipulation of votes in ARMM in the May 10 elections.

“The Ampatuans are very good in election fraud. Zaldy is actually an expert in that – how to rig election results. I think he will be used for that purpose,” Mangudadatu said.

Mangudadatu rushed to the DOJ yesterday to meet with prosecutors upon learning of Agra’s resolution.

He said he has received information from a reliable source that the wife of a presidential candidate had visited Andal Sr. in his cell some two weeks ago, possibly to talk about campaign support.

“It’s an A-1 information from my feelers,” he said.

He declined to name the candidate, but said Sen. Benigno Aquino III is single and that Gilbert Teodoro’s wife does not go around in sorties.

He reminded reporters that Andal Jr. had openly expressed support for Villar.

“That’s what he said. He even showed his baller. That was his declaration,” Mangudadatu said.

“It’s so disgusting,” he said, referring to Agra’s resolution. “We will continue to exhaust more peaceful means to have that ruling reversed,” he told the Notre Dame Broadcasting in Cotabato City in a phone interview.

Disbarment

Lawyers, supporters and families of the Maguindanao massacre victims are eyeing a disbarment case against Agra.

Roque said Agra could also be charged with graft under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the Code of Ethical Standards.

“This is a malicious decision which is without legal basis,” Roque told a press conference.

“You can’t just absolve someone based on a mere alibi,” Roque said.

The Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, meanwhile, appealed to Judge Solis-Reyes not to uphold Agra’s decision. “The case is already in court, so why should the DOJ be allowed to preempt a decision?” said AMRSP co-chair Sr. Mary John Mananzan.

“The resolution is premature, kahina-hinala (suspicious),” said Nena Santos, lawyer of the victims’ families.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said Agra’s decision was proof “that this administration would do everything within its power to assure they (Ampatuan clan) would not be held accountable.”

In a statement, the group said Agra “has hijacked the judicial process and subverted the very justice he should be upholding.”

Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair Leila de Lima, for her part, called Agra’s decision “somewhat suspicious.”

“That witness may not have testified yet at the moment but the affidavit already forms part of the records. Secretary Agra should have seen that when he reviewed the records. It’s intriguing and surprising that he suddenly reversed the charges,” she said.

“The situation at the DOJ, sensitive, volatile and untenable as it is, is cause for deep concern. CHR reminds government that this case, which has very serious human rights repercussions, should be handled with strictest attention to the facts and legal remedies,” she said. With Sandy Araneta, Reinir Padua, Michael Punongbayan, John Unson, Paolo Romero, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Pia Lee-Brago, Evelyn Macairan, Non Alquitran


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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