Department of Justice

Garin grills PAO on forensics, vaccines during DOJ budget hearing

Jairo Bolledo

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Garin grills PAO on forensics, vaccines during DOJ budget hearing

LAWMAKER. File photo of former health secretary and now Iloilo representative Janette Garin.


The former DOH chief also floats the idea of realigning the PAO's budget from its forensics unit to hiring additional PAO lawyers

Even though it’s been years since the Dengvaxia controversy, Iloilo 1st District Representative Janette Garin, former health secretary under the administration of late president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, has not forgotten.

The budget hearing on Wednesday, August 23, for the Department of Justice (DOJ), under which the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) falls, provided the perfect opportunity to rekindle old, burning issues.

Garin, who launched a school-based immunization program when she was health secretary in 2016, aimed questions at the two government bodies.

“Who has the expertise when it comes to forensic medicine and forensic pathology? Is it the PNP [Philippine National Police] crime laboratory and the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation], or is [the] PAO now the new expert in terms of forensic pathology?” Garin asked.

“Because I can also cite many cases that this has created confusion and the accused are left to go away, the victims are given another injustice because of this another confusion,” she added.

The confusion she was referring to stemmed from findings of PAO’s forensics unit in relation to deaths of children which were attributed to the Dengvaxia vaccine used to fight dengue.

At the height of the Dengvaxia issue, the PAO insisted on examining the children’s bodies without the participation of experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital. In 2018, a long-time pathologist discredited the PAO’s findings, calling the results baseless and illogical.

The PAO mainstains a forensics unit that provides services like forensic medicine and forensic and evidence photography. The forensic examinations it conducted were attended by controversy, which, in the case of Dengvaxia, resulted in a lower vaccination rate, according to the health department. Parents decided against having their children vaccinated or immunized because they became afraid of supposed harmful repercussions.

In response to Garin’s questioning, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said his agency recognizes that the country has a problem with forensic pathology, and inviting experts from the United Nations was one way of addressing this. In February this year, the Philippine government invited UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Dr. Morris Tidball-Binz, to improve the country’s capability on forensic pathology.

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The PAO also conducted a forensic examination on the remains of Kian delos Santos, the 17-year-old killed by cops in Caloocan City in 2017. After forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun reexamined Kian’s remains, she revealed this year that a bullet remained lodged in the teenager’s body over five years since his death.

Garin, meanwhile, floated the idea of realigning the PAO’s budget from its forensics unit to hiring additional PAO lawyers. Acosta said during the briefing they would need at least P2 billion to create more positions for new lawyers.

“Maybe if the honorable DOJ family and the honorable secretary will agree, the expenditure for the not qualified self-proclaimed experts or office can instead be realigned to hire more PAO lawyers? Kasi ang dami-dami na po kasi talagang nangangailangan ng tulong ng Public Attorney’s Office especially ‘yung ‘di kayang gumastos (Because there really are a lot of people who need the PAO’s help, especially the indigents),” the Iloilo lawmaker suggested.

On vaccines

At the height of the Dengvaxia issue, Acosta insisted that some children who received the vaccine died because of it. She even filed complaints against Garin, former president Noynoy Aquino, and other officials.

During Wednesday’s budget briefing, Garin asked Remulla if the PAO really filed a case against health officials in relation to COVID-19 vaccines. The DOJ chief said the filing of cases happened, prompting Garin to respond:

So ibig po sabihin eh, patuloy pong hinahabol ng Public Attorney’s Office ‘yung ating mga scientist, ‘yung mga totoong eksperto, ‘yung ating mga vaccinologists na kaunting-kaunti na lang po kami (So this means the PAO continues to go after our scientists, the real experts, our very few vaccinologists),” Garin said.

In 2022, some individuals, through the PAO, filed a petition for certiorari, prohibition, declaratory relief, and injunction with a Quezon City Regional Trial Court. The petition enjoined the health department from rolling out its COVID-19 vaccination program for children aged 5-11. –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.