MANILA, Philippines - Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II supports the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman approving criminal charges against former president Benigno Aquino III in the January 2015 encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao where 44 Philippine National Police – Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) commandos were killed.
“It’s a welcome development. The factual bases of the resolution are by and large accurate,” he told The STAR in a text message yesterday.
His opinion rebutted the claim of Aquino’s camp that the ombudsman appeared to have misappreciated the facts in the case in approving his indictment before the Sandiganbayan.
Aguirre said the findings of the anti-graft office on the criminal liabilities of Aquino and former PNP chief Alan Purisima vindicated his former client, former SAF director Getulio Napeñas Jr.
“In fact, that was exactly his defense — that the liability was with higher officials and he was only following orders,” Aguirre stressed, referring to Napeñas.
Prior to his appointment in the Department of Justice (DOJ) last year, Aguirre served as lawyer of Napeñas – reportedly his relative – during the Senate inquiry and in succeeding criminal charges against the former police general.
Aguirre, however, has reserved his comment on the dissatisfaction of families of the so-called SAF 44 due to Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales’ dismissal of their original complaint for reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide against Aquino and Purisima.
“I have yet to fully read the Ombudsman’s resolution to give a well-studied opinion on the matter,” Aguirre explained.
In its 35-page resolution released last week, the Ombudsman approved the indictment of the former president before the Sandiganbayan for usurpation of authority under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code and violation of Section 3 (a) of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Aquino was found liable for allowing Purisima, who was suspended as PNP chief at the time due to a graft case, to play a “major role” in Oplan Exodus, the SAF operation aimed at neutralizing Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman.
The deaths of the SAF commandos sparked public outrage and set back the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The trapped police commandos waited for reinforcement that never came.
Purisima and Napeñas are already facing separate cases of graft and usurpation of authority before the Sandiganbayan also in connection with the Mamasapano operation.
The resolution, approved by Carpio-Morales on July 1, resolved three separate complaints filed by the families of the slain SAF troopers in July and August last year, shortly after Aquino was stripped of immunity from suit following the end of his term.
Meanwhile, homicide, not usurpation of authority, should have been among the serious charges that should be filed by the Ombudsman against Aquino, senators said yesterday.
Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Senate committee on justice, hit what he described were watered-down charges the Ombudsman is set to file before the Sandiganbayan against Aquino.
“I haven’t fully read (the charge sheet), but it speaks for itself… There are many instances where charges are downgraded and (the accused) will appeal and eventually the charges will be dismissed,” Gordon told dzBB.
“If I were to be asked, I would’ve filed graver charges of multiple homicide through reckless imprudence – (Aquino) was in charge, he was in command, he was responsible, he watched (the operation),” he said.
The senator was apparently referring to Aquino and his security officials’ monitoring of the pre-dawn operation in Zamboanga City.
“They apparently turned their backs and tried to evade responsibility so why only usurpation of authority?” Gordon asked, adding Aquino could have immediately ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to intervene when the operation was going south.
Gordon stressed he continues to have the “highest regard” for Carpio-Morales, who, he said, may have people around her giving the wrong advice.
Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito supported the call of Gordon, as well as that of the families of the slain police officers, to charge Aquino with homicide.
“We really need closure and we need to give justice to those who died… and he admitted responsibility as commander-in-chief,” Ejercito said, adding that the Aquino administration tried to sweep the tragedy “under the rug.”
Gordon said he intends to push for the reopening of the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano incident that was previously conducted by Sen. Grace Poe as chair of the Senate committee on public order in the 16th Congress.
“Nobody will be exempted from this. (Aquino) has to man up and face the consequences,” Gordon said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Aquino’s colleague in the Liberal Party, opposed the call to level up the charges against the former chief executive.
Drilon pointed out that the Senate committee that previously investigated the incident did not make any recommendation to charge Aquino.
“This is a criminal case. Command responsibility is not applicable in criminal proceedings because they must prove the personal participation of the accused,” Drilon said.
Cool to the reopening of the Senate inquiry, which would be in aid of legislation, Drilon said Aquino would not likely participate in such a probe, as there is already a case and would not want to incriminate himself.