BY MALOU MANGAHAS AND NANCY C. CARVAJAL, PHILIPPINE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
THE Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) has sought the acquittal of Janet Napoles who was sentenced to 40 years in jail for illegal detention.
The OSG filed with the Court of Appeals a “manifestation in lieu of rejoinder” recommending Napoles’ acquittal.
The case stemmed from the complaint of Benhur Luy, who said he was illegally detained by Napoles from December 2012 to March 2013. Napoles is serving her life sentence at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City.
Five legal experts inside and outside government said that while Napoles’ case may not for now have a direct impact on the pork-barrel cases pending before the Sandiganbayan, questions may be raised about the integrity of Luy’s testimonies in the illegal detention case, and against Napoles.The question asked of the five lawyers interviewed by PCIJ is this: Has the Duterte administration forged a modus vivendi with Janet Lim Napoles, and for what reasons and purposes?The lawyers were unanimous about one thing: That the OSG’s manifestation heralds a policy shift in how the Duterte administration wants to deal with Napoles, Luy, other state witnesses, and the lawmakers who had been indicted in the plunder cases involving the misuse of pork barrel funds now pending trial before the Sandiganbayan.
Three former senators are facing plunder charges for the alleged misuse of their pork-barrel funds using the fake NGOs of Napoles as beneficiaries, supposedly in exchange for fat kickbacks Commented one of the lawyers: “The SolGen has taken positions before against the state, but often in minor cases, criminal and civil. This one is unusual because the SolGen has taken the side of the appellant, and against state witnesses in the pork barrel cases. This makes the SolGen manifestation significant. Most judges tend to favor the SolGen in cases like this one.”Curiously, though, relevant senior officials in the Office of the Ombudsman, the Supreme Court, and the Office of the Executive Secretary said they knew nothing about the OSG’s manifestation and described the move as “dangerous,” “alarming,” and “shocking.”
Solicitor General Jose Calida on Wednesday insisted that the trial court erred in convicting Napoles.
“It is my well-considered opinion and that of my assistants that the RTC erred in convicting Napoles,” Calida said in a news conference in Makati City.
Calida clarified that President Rodrigo Duterte had nothing to do with the review of the Napoles kidnapping case.
“The President does not instruct his Cabinet members what to do,” he said.
‘No liberty deprived’The OSG’s 10-page manifestation dated Jan. 11, 2017 was apparently triggered by a “reply brief” from Napoles dated Sept. 20, 2016 where “the appellant reiterated her argument that the essential element of deprivation of liberty is absent and wanting in this case.” “After examining anew the evidence presented by both the prosecution and defense,” the manifestation said, “the OSG finds that the evidence presented does not support beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant committed the crime of serious illegal detention.”It also explained why the Solicitor General was now disfavoring state witness Luy in the illegal detention case.”At this juncture, it may be significant to point out that the Solicitor General shares in the task and responsibility of dispensing justice and resolving disputes. He is similarly a servant of the law, the two-fold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or the innocent suffer (sic),” it added.
Judge Elmo M. Alameda of the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 150 sentenced Napoles on April 14, 2015 to life in jail after a two-year trial. Napoles later raised her case to the 13th Division of the Court of Appeals and submitted her reply brief on September 20, 2016. In less than four months, the OSG – which receives an average of about 30,000 appeals on criminal cases a year — filed its “manifestation in lieu of rejoinder” recommending her acquittal.Among other things, the OSG noted that on June 10, 2013, a special panel of prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ) had recommended the dismissal of the Luy’s complaint. The panel, after two months of investigation, reportedly found that Luy had “voluntarily stayed” at the priests’ retreat house. Alameda, in his ruling on the case, had said the prosecution was able to establish that Napoles ordered Luy’s detention when she discovered that he had started to transact business with certain lawmakers using her business model.According to Luy, Napoles and her brother Reynaldo had kept him at Bahay ni San Jose, a Catholic retreat house in Magallanes Village, Makati City, occupied by priests, and then at the Pacific Plaza Towers in Taguig City, where the Napoles family resides.Luy’s rescue by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation Special Task Force (NBI-STF) from Napoles’s posh residence in Taguig in March 2013 paved the way for an investigation of the use of fake NGOs as beneficiaries of the pork-barrel funds of certain legislators.Benhur’s conductThe NBI and Luy filed a serious illegal detention case against Napoles and Lim in March 2013, but as the OSG pointed out in its recent manifestation, a DOJ panel dismissed it three months later. The NBI then filed a motion for reconsideration, which had the DOJ refiling on Aug. 13, 2013 the case of serious illegal detention against Napoles and Lim. This in turn prompted the issuance of warrants of arrest against the two. But in its manifestation for Napoles’s acquittal in the serious illegal detention case filed by Benhur Luy, the OSG said, “The conduct and behavior of Benhur Luy during the period of his alleged detention belie the fact that he was detained or deprived of his liberty, contrary to the findings of the trial court in its April 14, 2015 decision.”Interestingly, just weeks before Napoles’s lawyers filed her “reply brief” in September 2016, Duterte brought up the notorious businesswoman’s case at a press conference in Davao City. Duterte told the media there that while some lawmakers had been indicted in the Napoles-led pork-barrel scam in 2013, it was “not enough vindication for the Filipino people.” “I would now raise again the Napoles issue,” media reports quoted the President as saying. “There are a lot of billions and billions of pesos lost. We have been able just only to put several lawmakers inside but only because the charge, the accusation is non-bailable.” “Let us revisit the Napoles case,” Duterte said. “I have some revealing things to tell you about it. You just wait, but I will…if that is the only thing that I have to do until the end of my term, I will do it, for I shall have done a singular task, giving you the truth about the government.””The Napoles case deserves a second look for it also involves corruption and (Senator Leila) de Lima,” Duterte said.
Impact on pork cases?For sure, the OSG is now giving the case more than a glance. Referring to the OSG’s manifestation, one of the legal experts queried by PCIJ remarked, “This is dangerous because of the indirect impact on (pending) pork cases, especially since Benhur talked because he was supposedly being detained illegally. This is not enough, of course, to set Napoles free, but doubt has been cast on the credibility of Benhur. Still, the illegal detention happened after Benhur acquired info on the pork transactions, so he can insist on his credibility about these matters. The problem is, public perception could turn against him because of this manifestation.”A lawyer who had been part of the COA special audit team on the PDAF cases agreed with this view, noting, “Benhur gave a lot of documents kasi. Certainly, the indirect impact of this is to question his credibility, and that of the other witnesses. That might be the point of this manifestation.”Still, the lawyer said, “A manifestation, from a lawyer’s point of view, does not always overturn or affect the court’s decision. This can be appealed to the (Supreme Court).”Yet another lawyer – a government prosecutor – predicted that even with the manifestation, “(Napoles) stays in jail for the pork cases.”The prosecutor added, “There was a time she wanted to tell all. Maybe that is the modus vivendi, for her to tell all on politicians they (administration) don’t like.”
WITH JAIME R. PILAPIL