THE Sandiganbayan 3rd Division will preside over the cases filed against former president Benigno Aquino 3rd for alleged graft and usurpation of official functions in connection with the botched police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao in 2015.
The court’s Third Division is composed of Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who heads the panel; Associate Justice Sarah Jane Fernandez, who leads the court’s Sixth Division and sits as a special member of the Third Division because of a vacancy, and; Associate Justice Bernelito Fernandez.
“No not really, we will just apply the rules as we have done in the past irrespective of the personalities involved in the cases,” Tang told reporters when asked if it would be hard to handle the cases that were filed against Aquino.
“We will act objectively based on what is before the court,” she said.
Aquino appointed Tang and Sarah Jane Fernandez as the court’s presiding justice in 2013 and associate justice in 2015 respectively. President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Associate Justice Bernelito Fernandez in 2016.
When asked if she would inhibit, Tang said, “No. The court will never shirk from its responsibility to dispense justice. There are legal grounds for inhibition and having been appointed by the accused before is not one of the legal grounds for inhibition.”
The court will determine if there is probable cause to proceed into a trial.
After the raffle, Tang said, “The records will be transmitted to the division to which the cases were raffled and the court meaning, the justices or members of the division, will determine the existence or absence as the case maybe of probable cause. If there is probable cause the court will issue a warrant of arrest. Otherwise, if the court does not find the existence of probable cause, it has two options – one, it may require the prosecution to submit additional evidence that will warrant the existence of probable cause, and two the court may just dismiss the case.”
The Office of the Ombudsman recommended a P40,000 bail for Aquino’s provisional liberty.
When asked if Aquino could post bail even without an arrest warrant, Tang said, “Well, the court has been doing that. When the accused appears before the court that means he is voluntarily submitting himself to the jurisdiction of the court. It may be exercised anytime provided that the case is bailable in nature.”
Aquino has been blamed for the deaths of 44 police commandos on January 15, 2015 in an encounter with Islamist extremists following a failed mission to serve arrest warrants on Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and his protégé Abdulbasit Usman. Marwan was killed while Usman escaped.
The botched operation, known as Oplan Exodus, was planned and carried out by his former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima even after he was suspended on separate corruption allegations.
Families of the victims have demanded that those responsible for the carnage be brought to justice.