Duterte: I ordered transfer of De Lima witnesses to marine barracks

CEBU CITY, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday, September 6, admitted that he was the one who ordered the transfer of high profile convicts who are witnesses in the trial of detained Senator Leila de Lima, to marine barracks in Fort Bonifacio.

The President made the statement in a speech in Naga City, Cebu, on Friday.

“There are some issues that I did not send some to prison, the penitentiary [in] Muntinlupa. I handed them over to the Marines. Why? Because I was scared that De Lima would have more henchmen and witnesses. They will really be killed. By then no one would be able to tell the truth," the President said in Cebuano.

"I’m telling you now. It was me. I was the one who gave the orders," Duterte added.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Friday, September 6, that 10 high-profile convicts, including 7 drug lords, were transferred to a marines facility from the National Bilibid Prison for security purposes. (READ: No special treatment in transfer of De Lima witnesses to marine barracks – DOJ)

Guevarra said he was informed of the proposal, but was not aware that the transfer had already been done.

The witnesses against De Lima who were transferred to a marines facility in Fort Bonifacio are Hans Tan, Peter Co, Jojo Baligad, Vicente Sy, Froilan Trestiza, Nonilo Arile, and Joel Capones. The other 3 convicts transferred are Chua Che Ket, Rico Caja, and Allan Senogat.

No questions

Duterte said he assumed full responsibility for the transfer and, in the same breath, volunteered that he had granted pardon to some convicts and commuted the sentences of others but did not specify who they were.

"There were people whom I pardoned and there were those whose sentence I commuted. It’s given in the Constitution. The power to commute and to pardon is absolute," Duterte said in Cebuano.

He said he would not answer anyone questioning this decision. 

"The people I grant pardon to is my responsibility.  You do not question because the Constitution says it is an absolute power. It doesn’t involve the Congress," the President said. 

"That’s mine alone. And because I saw that there are those who deserved to be released. But I will not answer that. It’s my power. So I will not answer questions why," Duterte added.

President's authority

In response to reporters’ questions, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Saturday, September 7, that the President is authorized to order the transfer.

“The President, as Chief Executive, has control and supervision over all offices and agencies under the executive department,” Guevarra said in a statement sent to media.

He also clarified that court approval for the transfer of prisoners is not needed if the new prison is a “BuCor extension facility,” as in the case of the Marine headquarters.

“If the transfer is to a facility not controlled by the BuCor, the court that committed the PDL to the original penitentiary should at least be notified or its approval secured. but if the transfer is made to a BuCor extension facility, such as a military camp by agreement, no court approval is required as long as custody and control remain with the BuCor,” he said.

Guevarra said the BuCor and the Philippines Marines had entered into a Memorandum of Agreement on this arrangement but he had no copy of the MOA. He added that the BuCor had forged a similar MOA with Camp Aguinaldo a few years ago.

De Lima: Duterte perpetuating 'drug lord myth'

De Lima, a fierce critic of Duterte and his bloody campaign against illegal drugs, had earlier asked the court to stop Bilibid convicts from testifying against her. She cited the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act and the Rules of Court, in filing the petition.

De Lima laughed off the President’s remarks on Saturday and said it was just another move to sustain the Duterte government’s allegation that she was a drug lord.

“Hahaha. So, in Duterte’s twisted mind, I’m that powerful! So powerful that I can actually command my alleged NBP ‘allies’ to harm or assassinate their fellow inmates! This is insanity in its most diabolical form!” said the senator, who has been detained for over two years.

 “It should be clear to everyone that this latest presidential inanity is but another move aimed at perpetuating their biggest lie or grossest myth – na ako daw ay sangkot sa ilegal na droga, na ako daw ang ‘No. 1 drug lord’ o ‘leading narcopolitican’ sa bansa (that I am involved in illegal drugs, that I am the ‘No.1 drug lord’ or the ‘leading narcopolitician in the country)!” she added.

The senator said the Duterte government should just "admit" the real reason for the transfer:  "For you and your equally evil operators to further control these witnesses in terms of pinning me down in the drug cases against me."

De Lima noted that the convicts were set to testify in her drug trial.

"You need to strike more clandestine deals with them to ensure my conviction. You need to give them further special treatment in exchange for falsely testifying against me, if not to further threaten, coerce and pressure them into standing by their grossly fabricated tales about me. In sum, more orchestrated lies!" she said.

The Supreme Court itself had previously ruled that allowing criminals guilty of crimes involving moral turpitude to become state witnesses is both arbitrary and a gross violation of the Rules of Court. The DOJ had insisted that the convicts were not being used as state witnesses.

In the same speech, Duterte addressed the firing of former Bureau of Corrections chief Nicanor Faeldon over the  botched release of rape-slay convict Antonio Sanchez under the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law.

The President called Faeldon a "straight edge," and credited him for busting Mighty Corporation for using P37-billion in fake tax stamps when he was Customs commissioner. (READ: Duterte after firing Faeldon: I still believe in him)

Duterte was in Cebu for the groundbreaking of a housing project on the Balili property in Barangay Tinaan, Naga City, for families who lost their homes in a landslide that hit the city in September 2018. The devastating landslide killed over 50 people and left hundreds of families homeless. – Rappler.com

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the President  referred to witnesses in De Lima's trial when he talked about commuting sentences of and granting pardon to some convicts. This has been corrected.

Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.

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