Procedural steps waived: Gov’t rushing GMA re-arrest in plunder case

By PETER J. G. TABINGO

MANILA – GOVERNMENT prosecutors yesterday sought to put former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo back in detention by asking for the issuance of an arrest warrant against her and a reconsideration of the bail granted to her Wednesday by a Pasay City court. Prosecutor Diosdado V. Calonge asked the Sandiganbayan First Division to immediately issue arrest warrants against Arroyo and her nine co-accused in a plunder charge over alleged fraudulent handling of P366 million confidential/intelligence funds of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

Calonge told the graft court that the government will no longer oppose the defendants’ motions to suspend further proceedings, defer the issuance of arrest warrants, and leave of court to file a motion for reconsideration before the Office of the Ombudsman so as not to cause further delay in the case. “We simply moved for the immediate issuance of a warrant of arrest,” he explained. Calonge said even if the Court allows the defendants to seek reconsideration of their indictment by the Ombudsman, the court may still issue an arrest warrant.

Anacleto Diaz, counsel for Arroyo, disagreed, saying such legal shortcut is not allowed in law. “The court would make its own independent evaluation of whether or not probable cause exists. What if the court says there’s no probable cause? That is possible, so there will be no basis to issue a warrant of arrest,” he pointed out. He stressed that it is a fundamental right of any person to have a full preliminary investigation. “The preliminary investigation is incomplete because we only filed our MR (motion for reconsideration) yesterday. Whether it be plunder or ordinary case, the law applies equally to all of us,” Diaz said.

Accused with Arroyo are former PCSO chairman Sergio O. Velancia; former PCSO general manager Rosario C. Uriarte; former PCSO directors Manuel L. Morato, Jose R. Taruc V, Raymundo T. Roquero and Ma. Fatima A. S. Valdes; PCSO budget officer Benigno B. Aguas; former Commission on Audit chairman Reynaldo A. Villar and former COA-Intelligence Fund Unit head Nilda B. Plaras. Lawyer Lorna Kapunan, who sought recognition by the graft court as private prosecutor representing complainant former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, said the court has already accorded the defendants more than enough time.

Kapunan said the arrest warrant should have been issued as early as July 20 because the case was filed last July 10. However, the court corrected Kapunan on the date because the information was filed only on July 16. Diaz countered that Arroyo has just been released after about eight months in detention for a poll fraud charge that was not backed by strong evidence. “How do we repair, how do we restore those eight months? We are only asking that the proceedings be suspended in the meantime that the Ombudsman is resolving our motion for reconsideration,” he said.

“We cannot be accused of delaying the proceeding. Where’s the delay? We received the official copy of the Ombudsman’s resolution only last July 20. We had until July 25 to file our MR and we filed it yesterday. We did not even ask for an extension of time,” Diaz added. Ray Montri Santos, counsel for Uriarte, objected to allowing Kapunan to appear as part of the prosecution panel, saying none of the private complainants can claim to have personal knowledge of the circumstances and details of the case.

STRONG EVIDENCE

The Commission on Elections, in a 17-page motion for reconsideration, asked Pasay City Regional Trial Court Branch 112 Presiding Judge Jesus Mupas to reconsider his decision to allow Arroyo to post a P1-million bail on the electoral charges filed against her in connection with alleged irregularities in the 2007 senatorial elections. Lawyer Esmeralda Ladra, head of the Comelec law department who signed the motion, said there is strong evidence of guilt against the former president, contrary to Mupas’ ruling. Electoral sabotage is a non-bailable offense. However, the court can grant bail if the evidence against the accused is weak. The motion was filed at 4:25 p.m., five minutes before the court closed for the day.

The poll body also asked Mupas to schedule a hearing on its motion at 9 a.m. on July 30. The Comelec said it presented 11 witnesses during the bail hearing, with former Maguindanao administrator Norie Unas as last witness, unlike the defense which did not present a single witness to rebut the testimonies. Mupas has said the prosecution failed to adequately establish that Arroyo is part of a conspiracy to rig the 2007 elections and that it relied on the Unas’ testimony which was uncorroborated and tainted with doubt. Unas said in his testimony that he heard the Arroyo order then Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. to ensure the landslide victory of her senatorial candidates.

Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. said the poll body and the Department of Justice are preparing for the main trial. Brillantes said government will insist on the credibility of Unas and back up its line-up of witnesses. Brillantes said he does not agree that Unas’ statement should be corroborated since only he, Arroyo and Ampatuan were present when the supposed instruction from Arroyo to rig the poll results was given. “Meron pa bang magko-corroborate kay Unas kundi si GMA (referring to Arroyo) lang? Magko-corroborate ba sila e sila yung principal accused? Susundin ba nila ang sasabihin ni Unas? Siyempre hindi. Pero nag-deny ba sila? Hindi naman sila nag-dedeny,” he said.

Brillantes said Unas is “very credible” and even risked his life to testify sans government protection. “He was subjected to cross examination by three lawyers of the three accused. Nadaanan niya ang lahat na yan. Sino ba ang mas credible, siya o si GMA? Ampatuan? O Bedol?” he added. The poll chief said the Comelec did not rush the filing of the electoral sabotage case against Arroyo. “It took us four months to complete the case. Asan naman ang nagmamadali doon?” asked Brillantes.

President Aquino, in a chance interview after the celebration of the 148th birth anniversary of Apolinario Mabini and the 114th foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, expressed dismay over Mupas’ decision and echoed Brillantes’ sentiments. But he said there is still the Sandiganbayan’s decision on the plunder case to look forward to. “Meron pang case pending before the Sandiganbayan, plunder, and plunder is not bailable also. So hinihintay natin iyung desisyon ng Sandiganbayan,” he said.

‘LOSER’

Archbishop emeritus Oscar Cruz, a staunch administration critic, said the granting of bail to Arroyo was a big slap on the face of Aquino and his anti-corruption campaign.

“I think the loser is the government… (Aquino said) everything will be ‘Daang Matuwid’ and that graft and corruption will be done away with. This is a slap to his face,” said Cruz. He said this is especially true since the decision was handed down right after Aquino’s State of the Nation Address, where he reiterated his mantra. “Ang tugon ko: Ang magpatawad, maaari; ang makalimot, hindi. Kung ang nagkasala ay hindi mananagot, gagarantiyahan mo ang pagpapahirap muli sa sambayanan,” said Aquino last Monday.

“I never expected that she would be released on bail. To me, it’s a pity because it’s as if there are people who are not covered by the law. For example, those other people who were accused of election fraud, at hindsight, they are not given the privilege of bail. Why is it like that?” said Cruz, a former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

CROSSED PATHS

At the Sandiganbayan, around 40 supporters of the former president led by the group “Karapatan ni GMA” engaged in a confrontation with 25 members of the anti-Arroyo party-list group Akbayan. The pro-Arroyos, mostly coming from Pampanga, carried placards and banners that read: “Kinasu-kasuhan, minadali, kahit mahina ang kaso,” while the anti-group brought placards, stating: “Sandiganbayan, arrest Gloria!” and “Arrest Gloria for plunder!” The pro-Arroyo group chanted “Gloria walang sala” while the opposing group shouted “Ikulong si Gloria!” Conrad Castillo of Akbayan said they strongly believe the plunder case filed by the party-list group against Arroyo before the Sandiganbayan was “solid as a rock that could land Arroyo in jail.” Myrna Ferrer of “Karapatan ni GMA” insisted that no one paid them to go there.

“Hindi po kami binayaran dito. Kusang loob ito. Pagtanaw namin ito ng utang na loob sa mga nagawang kabutihan ng aming mahal na Gloria Arroyo,” Ferrer said.