Did Sereno use Aguirre to limit martial law scope in Mindanao?

Lian Buan
Did Sereno use Aguirre to limit martial law scope in Mindanao?
Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwen Garcia asks the justice secretary if Sereno's request to downplay the danger posed by the Maute trial being held in Cagayan de Oro gave her basis for her vote on martial law coverage in Mindanao

MANILA, Philippines – Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwen Garcia on Tuesday, November 28, insinuated that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno may have used Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to lay the groundwork for her vote to limit the coverage of martial law to only the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Sulu – instead of the entire Mindanao.

The House committee on justice heard the testimony of Aguirre on Tuesday on Larry Gadon’s charge that there was deliberate delay and manipulation on Sereno’s part in the approval of Aguirre’s request to transfer Maute cases to Taguig.

Aguirre said that when Sereno called him for a meeting at the Supreme Court on June 19, the Chief Justice told him to tone down his letter on the danger posed to court employees outside Marawi.

“(The Chief Justice) told me to tone down my letter in requesting the transfer, she told me I need not emphasize anymore the dangers facing judges and prosecutors and instead focus my letter on the fact that transferring the trial to Taguig would free the military based in Camp Evangelista (in Cagayan de Oro) and so they could focus on fighting the Maute,” Aguirre told the House justice committee on Monday in the continuation of the hearing on the impeachment complaint against Sereno.

By this time, the Supreme Court had already ruled to transfer Maute cases to Cagayan de Oro. Aguirre had requested that it be moved out of Mindanao and was appealing the decision.

At this time also, Supreme Court oral arguments on the petitions to invalidate President Rodrigo Duterte’s proclamation of martial law in Mindanao were ongoing.

Aguirre said he heeded Sereno’s request and sent a new letter that no longer raised his original point about the trial posing grave danger to prosecutors and judges if it were held in Cagayan de Oro.

The Supreme Court ruled on July 18 to approve Aguirre’s request to transfer Maute cases to Taguig.


Basis for vote? 

In her line of questioning, Garcia asked Aguirre if the request was done so Sereno would have basis to say the risks of the then ongoing war were confined only to Marawi. Garcia noted that Sereno would eventually vote on July 4 to limit martial law to 3 provinces only.

Sereno was in the minority as 11 justices or the majority voted to uphold Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao.

“In that sense, would you sense that that would be limiting the focus on Marawi City per se and in fact would gloss over the fact that yung danger hindi lang naman sa Marawi City kundi pati na nga sa Cagayan de Oro City (the danger is not only in Marawi City but also in Cagayan de Oro City) and for all we know the rest of Mindanao,” Garcia asked.

She further pressed: “By toning down emphasis on danger outside of Marawi and merely focusing on need of troops battling the raging war in Marawi, would that in effect seem to give the impression that yung danger nasa Marawi naman talaga (the danger was really just in Marawi)?” 

Although Aguirre said he doesn’t want to speculate, he did note that petitions had been filed at the Supreme Court at the time.

Asked whether he thought it improper for the Chief Justice to instruct him how to frame his letter, Aguirre said: “Approximately we are the same level, but I would not be telling that to somebody who is almost co-equal with you.”

‘Baseless’ 

In a commentary sent to reporters, Sereno’s camp said the “accusation of intentional delay” is baseless.

“It was the Supreme Court En Banc which resolved the requests of Secretary Aguirre, not Chief Justice Sereno herself,” they said in their statement.

The camp noted that it took the SC only 8 days to rule on Aguirre’s original request. Aguirre appealed the original ruling to hold trial in Cagayan de Oro on June 12.

“As to Secretary Aguirre’s request for reconsideration, the Supreme Court discussed the same barely 14 days later, or on 27 June 2017 (amidst oral arguments and the Supreme Court’s urgent work on the petitions questioning President Duterte’s declaration of martial law). Only 14 days later, or on 18 July 2017, the Supreme Court released its resolution granting Secretary Aguirre’s request for reconsideration,” the Sereno camp said.

They added that the time it took to resolve the request was due to the need to “coordinate among the Supreme Court, the PNP, the AFP and the DOJ, with respect to the security and logistics issues associated with Sec. Aguirre’s request.”

Gadon said the delay and manipulation in the issuance of the resolution is a culpable violation of the Constitution.

Asked whether he thinks the issue is an impeachable offense, Aguirre said: “In my opinion, for it to be culpable violation of Constitution there must be undue or unreasonable delay or an illegal motive why there was such a delay.” Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.