The Court of Appeals has acquitted Janet Lim-Napoles of the charge of serious illegal detention for allegedly locking up her relative, pork barrel scam star witness Benhur Luy.
In a 35-page decision, the court’s 12th Division found enough reasonable doubt to dismiss the case.
“We hold that the evidence against [Napoles] is not sufficient to establish her participation or culpability in the alleged criminal conspiracy. The prosecution has not discharged its burden of proof in establishing the commission of the crime charged and in identifying [Napoles] as the malefactor responsible for it,” stated the May 5 ruling written by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro.
Justices Samuel Gaerlan and Joseph Lopez concurred with the decision.
Napoles, who has been tagged as “pork barrel scam queen” at the height of the investigation, however, will remain in detention because of her plunder case pending before the Sandiganbayan, a non-bailable offense.
But she may be released from the Correctional Institute for Women as she is no longer a convict, and transferred to another detention facility.
The appeals court ruled that “there is no indubitable proof that Benhur was forced or involuntarily brought and confined in Bahay ni San Jose,” a Makati City retreat house.
There was enough evidence to establish that Luy “sought spiritual retreat therein” and was free to roam about, the court said.
“Benhur attended Mass every night with the priests residing in Bahay ni San Jose. He also maintained a journal covering the period of his stay in Bahay ni San Jose which contained biblical verses and references,” the decision read. “These daily reflections are consistent with his religious activity.”
“Taken together, Benhur’s actuations are contrary to that of a person forced to stay with a religious order but are more consistent with the conclusion that he was seeking, and enjoying, too, [a]religious retreat,” it added.
In 2013, Luy complained before the Department of Justice (DOJ) that Napoles and her brother Reynald Lim ordered his detention for three months, from December 20, 2012 to March 22, 2013, to prevent him from divulging information about the siphoning of billions of pesos in lawmaker’s Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) to bogus nongovernment organizations and ghost projects.
The charges against Napoles and Lim were initially dismissed by prosecutors during the preliminary investigation for lack of probable cause. The dismissal was later reversed by the DOJ.
Napoles was convicted by the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 150 on April 14, 2015, and was sentenced to life in prison. She was ordered to pay Luy P50,000 in civil indemnity and P50,000 in moral damages.
Solicitor General Jose Calida lauded the appeals court for upholding his position on Napoles’ serious illegal detention case.
“The decision of the Court of Appeals encapsulates the Latin maxim fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Calida said.
“I commend the magistrates of the 12th Division of the Court of Appeals for doing what is right based on the evidence before them,” he added.
He pointed out that the serious illegal detention charge had no bearing on Napoles’ pork barrel cases.
“The evidence in the Napoles case did not sustain the conviction of the trial court,” Calida said. “The essential element of deprivation of liberty was absent and wanting in this case.”
Malacañang on Monday echoed Calida and allayed fears that Napoles would go scot-free following the ecision of the Court of Appeals.
In a statement, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the decision had nothing to do with Napoles’ “pork barrel” cases.
“The Court of Appeals acquitting Ms. Janet Napoles involves her illegal detention case. It has no direct impact on her pork barrel cases,” Abella said, disputing claims that President Duterte’s administration had struck a deal with Napoles.
“Government is clear that there is no policy shift on how we deal with Napoles. Neither there is an agreement forged between the Duterte administration and Napoles,” he added.
Duterte himself had expressed support for Calida’s bid to have Napoles acquitted, saying Luy “was not restrained at all.”
His chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, believes the evidence against Napoles on the pork barrel scam cases is strong.
“The Court of Appeals has spoken and we respect the decision. As we always say it’s for the court to decide whether the evidence presented before it will entitle the accused to an acquittal or conviction,” Panelo told reporters.
“But that doesn’t mean, let me emphasize, that the plunder case against Napoles is weak. Certainly, the government has strong cases against her.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE