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Soft on Napoles? Duterte gov't just upholding 'rule of law'

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte's chief legal counsel said on Wednesday, February 15, that the move of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) to recommend the acquittal of Janet Lim Napoles in a serious illegal detention case is consistent with the administration's bid to uphold the rule of law.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo offered this explanation to reporters in a phone interview on Wednesday, when asked whether the Duterte administration was going soft on the alleged pork barrel scam mastermind, given the OSG's move.

Panelo insisted that the move is not a favor for Napoles but part of the Duterte administration's commitment to uphold the rule of law for all persons, controversial or not.

"The administration of Duterte will always follow what the rule of law and the Constitution states regardless of who are the persons involved, whether that person is a controversial figure or a non-controversial figure," he said.

The OSG said it remains unconvinced that Napoles was guilty of illegally detaining Benhur Luy, who turned state witness to testify against Napoles in the congressional inquiry into the pork barrel scam. (READ: Pork Tales: A story of corruption)

Luy, a cousin of Napoles, was her longtime assistant before he eventually became the principal witness in the plunder complaint filed against her.

Panelo is confident that the OSG has basis for this finding.

"Our position is if the OSG is the office that studied the case and it's his office that recommended the acquittal, then we have to abide by its position unless independent entities can show us that the position is contrary to evidence and contrary to the records of the case. But I doubt it is contrary because the OSG is doing its job," said Panelo.

Asked if Duterte relayed any instructions to the OSG regarding Napoles' case, Panelo said to his knowledge, there was no such instruction from the Chief Executive.

"The President does not give any instruction to any department, he has repeatedly said that. He leaves departments alone. He will only come in when there is a complaint," he said.

The President's chief legal counsel said the OSG's move only proves the government looks at the merits of a case objectively and not based on the personalities involved.

"The lawyer of the Republic of the Philippines is bound by law not only to prosecute the accused but to give justice to all. When you see there is no evidence, like President Duterte when he was prosecutor, it was he who moved for the dismissal of a criminal case," said Panelo.

When asked, Panelo said he does not think the possible acquittal of Napoles for the crime of illegal detention will affect the pork barrel cases.

Even if she were to be acquitted for that particular crime, Napoles has other pending cases of graft, malversation of public funds, and corruption of public officers. 

Three senators have been charged with plunder for allegedly conspiring with Napoles in funneling millions in pork barrel funds into bogus non-governmental organizations, and getting huge kickbacks in return.

Duterte has promised to stamp out corruption in government, one of his key campaign promises.

Experts interviewed by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said the OSG's move may herald a "policy shift" in how the Duterte government deals with Napoles and the indicted lawmakers. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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