President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to put Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II behind bars if self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa and Cebunao businessman Peter Lim are able to escape after the drug charges against them were dropped.
In a series of tweets while the Joint Command Conference in Malacañang was ongoing Tuesday night, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque described how Duterte gave Aguirre the dressing down as he vowed to automatically review the dismissal order.
“PRRD to SOJ: Pag nakawala yan si Lim at Espinosa, sya ang ipapalit ko (PRRD to Secretary of Justice: If Lim and Espinosa escape, you will replace them),” Roque said on his Twitter account.
“PRRD: I will invoke my power of supervision and control and will review dismissal.”
Roque said Aguirre informed the President that he has just formed a new investigation panel to review the case.
Earlier in the day, Aguirre said Lim and Espinosa are not yet off the hook despite the dismissal of drug charges filed by the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
“Suffice it to say that the current status of the case against respondents Peter Lim et al does not mean that it is a final exoneration of their respective criminal liabilities. Under our present procedure in the DOJ, there are possible avenues to review this case, wither by a motion for reconsideration, or ultimately, by way of automatic review by my office,” Aguirre said in a statement.
The Justice secretary added that the complainant even has the option of challenging the DOJ’s resolution through a petition for review before the Court of Appeals, as in ordinary cases as provided by the Rules of Court.
Nonetheless, Aguirre said his office “has no hand nor say” on the resolution by the investigating panel of prosecutors that dismissed all charges against Lim and Espinosa for lack of probable cause.
He declined to tackle the merits of the case, saying it would eventually be the subject of an automatic review that he would resolve.
Under DOJ procedures, the secretary of Justice only decides on criminal charges once the cases are elevated to his office through a petition for review or automatic review in cases of dismissed drug charges.
However, Aguirre admitted that the dismissal of the charges against Lim and Espinosa—whom President Rodrigo Duterte had previously tagged in illegal drug operations in the country—would hurt the administration’s war on drugs.
“This dismissal is a slight bump on the war against drugs. It is likewise a wake-up call to all concerned that our efforts, from apprehension to resolution to conviction must be concerted and thorough,” he said, adding that many drug cases are dismissed due to bungled investigation by law enforcers.
Aguirre vowed that the DOJ remains “committed to waging the war on drugs” despite the latest setback.
In its resolution dated Dec. 20, 2017 but released only Monday, the DOJ prosecutors faulted the PNP-CIDG for presenting weak evidence and the “inconsistencies” in the testimony of the lone witness, Marcelo Adorco, as reasons for dismissing the charges.
Adorco claimed in his affidavit that Lim had supplied narcotics in “staggering amounts” to Espinosa for more than two years.
But Assistant State Prosecutors Michael John Humarang and Aristotle Reyes held that Adorco’s claims were contrary to the “standards of human experience and the logical course of reality.”
The DOJ also cited as basis the complainant’s “failure to present any circumstantial evidence to prove respondents’ illegal drug transactions.”
Also cleared by the DOJ were inmate Peter Co, Max Miro, Ruel Malindangan, Jun Pepito and Lovely Adam Impal.
Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay said the dismissal of the charges against Lim and Espinosa was proof of the political nature of the war on drugs of the Duterte administration, which he termed as a “fake war.”
He compared the case to the drug case against detained Senator Leila de Lima.
“The DOJ was able to use basic requirements of corpus delicti and the need for credible witnesses in their case, matters that were conveniently dropped by the DOJ in Senator De Lima’s case. The amendment of the charges, the use of disqualified witnesses, dispensing with the need for evidence—these are all signs of political persecution in the case of Senator De Lima,” Hilbay said.
“Friends, allies, useful witnesses are exonerated, while political dissent[er]s are incarcerated on bogus charges,” he said.
The police, meanwhile, have filed an appeal of the DOJ decision, and officials of the CIDG have met with Aguirre regarding the automatic review of the case, said PNP spokesman Chief Supt. John Bulalacao.
“Immediately, the CIDG director met with SOJ Aguirre for the automatic review of the case and now, our investigations and the legal teams of the PNP will identify additional witnesses and are gathering pieces of evidence for the re-filing of the case,” Bulalacao told reporters Tuesday.
“This is just a temporary setback which saddened us just the same. We will pursue this case because we know that this is a major campaign of the government. These people are primary players and high value targets on illegal drugs so we have to find a way to resolve this case, as much as possible, to convict them,” he added.
Senator Richard Gordon, a Duterte ally, said Aguirre must explain why the DOJ dismissed the case.
“If that case is about drugs, Vit Aguirre should explain,” said Gordon, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which investigated Espinosa’s drug case.
“He absolved everybody. It appears that we should change our lawyers,” he added.
Gordon said other senators were also downhearted by the move of the DOJ to clear the drug trafficking case filed by the CIDG last year. He questioned why somebody who confessed to being a drug lord was cleared of drug charges.
Espinosa confessed to distributing drugs in the Eastern Visayan region and even named his alleged suppliers, which included Lim, during the Blue Ribbon hearing in September 2016. With PNA
However, during his arraignment before the Manila regional trial court , Espinosa pleaded innocent to drug charges.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said he could not understand the reason for the dismissal, saying it was bad for the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.
Another Duterte supporter, Senator Panfilo Lacson, said Aguirre can still reverse the panel decision in the automatic review.
He said he believes there is enough evidence against Espinosa, at least.
“Based on the evidence unearthed and presented during the Senate hearings, at least in the case of Kerwin Espinosa, I would like to think that probable cause would have been clearly established,” he said.
Senator Grace Poe said she was disturbed by the decision of the DOJ panel, given that Espinosa himself admitted before the Senate inquiry that he was indeed involved in the illegal drug trade.
“How a self-confessed drug lord like Kerwin Espinosa can be exonerated by the state, is perplexing. It reflects the sloppiness of the police’s investigation and case buildup against these drug lords,” she said.
Acting Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan, who cleared Espinosa, said the statements of witness Marcelo Adorco against Espinosa were self-serving and contradictory.
“This should have prompted them to use the entire machinery of the state’s prosecution arm to gather more testimonial and object evidence, rather than lazily relying on this single witness. Did the prosecution really look for justice?” she asked.
“If this DOJ decision is affirmed by the secretary of Justice, this would be an insult to the brave policemen who have died in legitimate anti-drug operations,” she said.
Senator JV Ejercito said he was puzzled by the DOJ decision, and added that it sends mixed signals regarding the Duterte administration’s seriousness in going after drug lords.
Liberal Party president Senator Francis Pangilinan noted that De Lima remained in jail on the word of Espinosa, which the DOJ had just cleared.
The exoneration, Pangilinan said, highlights the administration’s poor record for due process and fair play.
“The exoneration sheds any pretense of logic,” Pangilinan said. “If Kerwin Espinosa is not involved in drugs, then what reason remains for him to bribe Senator De Lima, as he claimed in his testimony? What reason remains for Senator De Lima to be in jail?”
“We continue to assert that Leila de Lima is innocent. Her only crime was to hold government to account for human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings. We call for her immediate release,” he said.
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV said the Justice Department’s exoneration of Espinosa is proof that the President has “unleashed upon us… a fake drug war.”
The Palace said Tuesday the dismissal of cases against Lim and Espinosa would not affect the war on illegal drugs.
“We would like to assure the public that the dismissal is far from being final. It is in fact subject to automatic review by Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and we look forward to review to be made by Secretary Aguirre,” Roque said during a Palace briefing.
“If upon review the DOJ finds reasons to reverse the dismissal, then it will be reversed. If however it is necessary to file additional evidence, we will prompt police authorities to do so. We will not allow a big fish to go away if there is evidence to go after him,” Roque added.
He also said the dismissal would not affect De Lima’s case, as there are other witnesses who would testify against her. With PNA
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