THEY may have been indicted but senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. will not be immediately arrested.
Despite statements made by Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that the government has enough evidence to prove their guilt, the Sandiganbayan is yet to weigh the merits of the case on its own before it could issue arrest warrants against the lawmakers and their co-accused in the plunder complaint filed by the Office of the Ombudsman.
Senate President Franklin Drilon said the Sandiganbayan has not raffled off the case to its divisions, after which the determination of probable cause can commence. The division that will handle the case will have 10 days to determine if there are enough reasons to order the arrest of the accused.
But Drilon said that once arrest warrants are issued, he would not allow the Sandiganbayan sheriff to apprehend the lawmakers in the Senate premises.
“I would request that they do not arrest the accused in the Senate. But this is not a matter of law because, theoretically, the law enforcements officers can arrest them anywhere,” the Senate president told reporters on Friday.
Drilon noted that the issuance of warrants of arrest will lead to the automatic suspension of Enrile, Estrada and Revilla from the chamber.
He said the Ombudsman will have to file a motion at the Sandiganbanyan, which will then issue the suspension order.
But the anti-graft court can only issue a maximum of 90-day preventive suspension and, during that period, the suspended senators will be prevented from performing their duties as lawmakers.
Drilon said the suspended senators can still file bills from behind bars.
He admitted that while the search for truth may be painful, it is a necessary process that strengthens government institutions and reinforces the trust and confidence of the people in the justice system.
“We are a government of laws, not of men. And no one is above the law,” Drilon said.
The filing of the complaint, he added, will give the respondents the chance to defend themselves.
“We hope that the Sandiganbayan will set the case for speedy trial so that the innocent would be cleared and freed, and the guilty punished and jailed,” Drilon said.
Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano also on Friday said the next step by the Ombudsman should be to initiate forfeiture proceedings against the accused.
Citing Republic Act 6770 and Republic Act 1379, Cayetano added that the Ombudsman has the power to conduct a preliminary investigation of civil forfeiture upon a complaint filed by a taxpayer.
The senator said forfeiture proceedings will be faster and through this action, the government will be able to get back the loot stolen by public officials through illegal means.
“If you see that the wealth of a public official is not proportional to his or her income, then the government can confiscate his or her property,” Cayetano explained.