Department of Justice

Inside new DOJ: Remulla puts prosecutors and Bilibid under tight watch

Lian Buan
Inside new DOJ: Remulla puts prosecutors and Bilibid under tight watch

NEW DIRECTIONS. Crispin 'Boying' Remulla delivers a speech after attending the flag raising ceremony at the DOJ office in Manila, as he starts his first day as justice secretary, on July 4, 2022.


Timing also puts Remulla's DOJ at the center of the first litmus test of the Marcos-Duterte alliance: how to deal with the ICC

MANILA, Philippines – The first two weeks of Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla as justice secretary have been relatively quiet, as far as loud moves go, but inside, his actions have had huge implications for an institution as complicated and entangled as the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Last week, Remulla issued a circular that would give him additional powers over the National Prosecution Service (NPS), a unit that had always prided itself with being independent even though it is under the DOJ.

He also met with prison reform expert Raymund Narag, signaling he is serious about introducing changes in the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) – a declaration he made on his first day. It’s a relationship even more complicated, because while DOJ is seen as the authority and has supervisory powers, BuCor is autonomous too, as stated in its own charter.

The power play was palpable in the controversies that hounded BuCor in the past – from mysterious COVID-19 deaths to the more recent irregular interviews that were allowed.

Timing also puts Remulla’s DOJ at the center of the first litmus test of the Marcos-Duterte alliance: how to deal with the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is investigating crimes against humanity committed between 2011 and 2019 when former president Rodrigo Duterte was mayor and vice mayor of Davao before he assumed the presidency and ordered a brutal anti-drug campaign.

How did these all happen in 18 days?

Warning to BuCor

At his first flag ceremony, Remulla named BuCor, the Bureau of Immigration (BI), and Land Registration Authority (LRA) as three of the most problematic agencies in the DOJ, accusing them of letting corrupt syndicates thrive.

BuCor has been a pain point of any administration, and the past decade has seen how convicts are able to continue to exert influence from their airconditioned and lavish cells within the walls of the New Bilibid Prison.

On his first week, Remulla met with Narag, a Filipino academic based in the United States who is considered an expert on prison reform, having been detained himself before being acquitted.

Narag has written extensively and critically about how over-congested Philippine prisons are run. He was one of those who called for measures when so many prisoners were dying during the pandemic, a crisis that BuCor under Gerald Bantag wanted to pass off as just a normal problem.

Bantag, an appointee of former president Duterte, was summoned by the DOJ a couple of times by then-justice secretary Menardo Guevarra, and was even issued a show cause for allowing the Apollo Quiboloy-owned SMNI to interview convicted kidnapper retired military general Jovito Palparan.

Duterte made Bantag’s appointment as director general official with a tour of duty not exceeding six years only in March 2022, because it turns out his appointment in 2019 was only a “secondment” from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP).

Now that prosecutors are reviewing a murder complaint against police officers assigned to Bilibid over mysterious deaths of drug convicts, Remulla said he has a “stern desire to hold all those involved accountable.”

Narag told Rappler that Remulla “asked me some ideas on how to improve the Bucor, especially the New Bilibid Prison.”

“It is uncertain in what capacity Professor Narag will come in as, but the two shared opinions and compared notes on the changes they seek to make,” said Mico Clavano, a representative from Remulla’s office.

Remulla visited BuCor on Monday, July 18, and told them he had already inspected the Sablayan penal farm in Occidental Mindoro as potential area to transfer heinous crime Bilibid inmates and especially watch over drug convicts “who destroy our society.”

Ang paglilipat ng maximum security prison sa hindi masyadong dinadayo ng mga tao ay para mas madali nating mabantayan ang mga nasintensiyahan na ng mga hukuman natin,” Remulla said.

(Transfering the maximum security prison to a place where people cannot visit often will allow us to better watch over those who have been sentenced by our courts.)

Malakas ang loob natin na mapapatupad natin ang mga repormang ating binabalak hindi lang sa BuCor, kundi sa lahat ng sangay ng DOJ,” said Remulla.

(I am confident we will be able to implement our reforms not just in BuCor, but in all other branches of the DOJ.)

Circular No. 027

The first concrete reform was Circular No. 027 issued by Remulla on July 13, which are revised rules on appealing decisions of the NPS or prosecutors. Clavano said in the release that the rules are to “streamline and rationalize the appeal procedure.”

But the fine print reveals that it gives Remulla a tighter grip on prosecutors. Generally, a person who is dissatisfied by the decision of the prosecutor can file a petition for review with the justice secretary.

Section 3 of the new rules gives the secretary, or Remulla, motu proprio review powers, or the authority to review a prosecutor’s decision based only on his own initiative, even without someone filing a request.

“The Secretary of Justice reserves the right to evaluate, in the interest of justice, to afford fair play and prevent the miscarriage of justice, motu proprio or upon written and signed complaint, any resolution of the Prosecutor General, Regional State Prosecutors and Provincial/City Prosecutors,” the rules say.

During the Arroyo administration, state prosecutors walked out of the DOJ to protest the decision of their boss – former justice secretary Alberto Agra – who wanted to absolve Zaldy Ampatuan over the Maguindanao massacre. The prosecutors prevailed. Zaldy was among those convicted in 2019.

Section 4 of the rules says the secretary will soon create a Prosecution Integrity Board “to monitor, audit from time to time and assess the performance of the prosecutor general, regional state prosecutors and provincial/city prosecutors in the conduct of the preliminary investigation and/or appeal.”

This, to some, is the Secretary breathing down the necks of prosecutors.

“The creation of the integrity board is welcome,” said Prosecutor General Ben Malcontento, Duterte’s appointee.

“It can easily determine the harassment suits against prosecutors. It can also address the valid complaints,” Malcontento added.

The ICC test

On July 14, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber invited victims of the drug war and the Philippine government – now under Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – to send in comments to Prosecutor Karim Khan’s request to resume the investigation into killings under Duterte.

It’s a tricky move.

First, if the Philippine government does send a submission, will that be seen as an acknowledgment of the jurisdiction of the ICC over the country, something that Duterte has denied over and over?

“I will look into it,” Remulla told Rappler.

Second, if the government responds, will that be the same as lending state resources to Duterte who is now a civilian?

“The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) is considering several options, such as challenging the jurisdiction of the ICC/admissibility of the case, or continuing to leave our lines of communication with the ICC open,” said Guevarra, Marcos’ solicitor general and Duterte’s former justice secretary.

Is Guevarra considering the allegations against Duterte an allegation against the Republic of the Philippines, which is now under a new leader?

“There are state sovereignty issues involved. We need to cover those points, first and foremost,” said Guevarra. The OSG is also an agency attached to the DOJ.

They have until September 8 this year to respond to the ICC if they want to. Any move will bear signs of how strong the Duterte-Marcos alliance is, especially given the President’s diplomatic posturing that he is aligned with the international community, which in turn, supports the ICC.

“PBBM has not had the occasion to discuss the ICC case thoroughly with anyone, but I intend to consult with him about it very soon,” said Guevarra. –

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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 or tweet @lianbuan.