The Supreme Court will decide en banc on a petition seeking to upgrade the criminal cases against former President Benigno Aquino III over the death of 44 police commandos during the Mamasapano clash in 2015.
In a resolution, the SC granted the plea of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and relatives of the fallen policemen from the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force or “SAF 44” to elevate their petition from the First Division for hearing and resolution of the full court.
“The Court resolved to accept this case which was referred to it by the First Division in the latter’s resolution dated Feb. 20, 2019,” the resolution said.
Ferdinand Topacio, counsel of VACC and families of SAF 44, welcomed the Court’s action, saying it was a step toward justice.
“We thank the Honorable Supreme Court for accepting our appeal for (full court) hearing and resolution of this case. Slowly but surely, justice will be done for the SAF 44,” he said in an interview by phone.
Topacio admitted that their camp is planning to ask the high court to conduct oral arguments on the case so they could demonstrate how retired Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales committed grave abuse of discretion in indicting Aquino, former Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima and former PNP-SAF director Getulio Napeñas Jr. before the Sandiganbayan only for graft and usurpation of official function when homicide charges were filed against them.
“The mothers and widows of the SAF 44 really could not believe how the former ombudsman downgraded the cases against the former president. They were actually losing hope in their quest for justice, but we have to fight for it,” he said.
He said while the Court does not intervene or reverse the decision of the Ombudsman in most cases, they are hoping the justices would see the error committed by Morales.
Topacio said they found hope when the SC acted on their petition and issued a temporary restraining order on the Sandiganbayan proceedings in the case in February last year.
The TRO, which enjoined the anti-graft court and the Ombudsman from proceeding with the arraignment of the three accused, remains in effect, he added.
The case stemmed from the Jan.25, 2015 operation in Mamasapano that resulted in the deaths of over 60 people, including 44 members of the elite SAF 44, who died in a clash involving members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and other armed groups.
A police board that investigated the clash noted the lack of coordination between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a ceasefire committee as well as poor planning in the operation against international terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and Filipino bomb maker Basit Usman.
Aside from the SAF troopers, 18 MILF fighters and five civilians died in the clash.
In July 2017, the Office of the Ombudsman found probable cause to charge Aquino, Purisima, and Napeñas with graft and usurpation of authority under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code.
Last year, Solicitor General Jose Calida supported the VACC petition and asked the Supreme Court to order the Office of the Ombudsman to file 44 counts of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide against Aquino, Purisima, and Napeñas.