Leila de Lima

DOJ takes swipe at court over transfer of witnesses who recanted in De Lima case

Jairo Bolledo

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DOJ takes swipe at court over transfer of witnesses who recanted in De Lima case

FREED. Former senator Leila de Lima holds a press briefing in a hotel after her release from detention at the PNP Custodial Center, in Quezon City on November 13, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

'Are they afraid of the truth? Why are they blocking it?' De Lima asks

MANILA, Philippines – The latest in the saga of former senator Leila de Lima’s case: the Department of Justice (DOJ) took a swipe at a Regional Trial Court (RTC) for ordering the transfer of witnesses who recanted in the case.

In an order dated December 13, Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 206 Presiding Judge Gener Gito granted De Lima’s motion to transfer the custody of the convicts-witnesses who recanted their statements against the former senator.

Judge Gito ordered the transfer of the following persons deprived of liberty (PDL) from the Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Mindoro Occidental to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP):

  • Engelberto Durano
  • German Agojo
  • Hans Anton Tan
  • Herbert Colangco
  • Jaime Patcho
  • Jerry Pepino
  • Joel Capones
  • Noel Martinez
  • Nonilo Arile
  • Tomas Doniña
  • Wu Tuan Yuan alias “Peter Co”

However, in a strongly-worded statement, the DOJ said it acknowledged the court’s decision, but said “some matters must be made clear.”

“Moreover, the DOJ underscores that the courts cannot dictate specific security arrangements for PDLs. The BuCor (Bureau of Corrections) has established protocols to ensure the safety of all individuals in custody. Inmates in the NBP, including those involved in high-profile cases, are provided adequate security and care,” the DOJ said in a statement.

The justice department noted that the witnesses are no ordinary witnesses, but convicted felons. It added that the transfer of PDLs out of Bilibid was in accordance to the government’s effort to address the overcrowding of prisons. The DOJ also said that video hearings can be used as alternative for security and logistical challenges during court proceedings.

Although the court did not say that the transfer served as a reward for the recanting witnesses, the DOJ said it “does not endorse rewarding PDLs for recanting testimonies. Recanting is viewed unfavorably by the legal system, as it raises questions about the credibility and reliability of witness testimonies. Rewarding PDLs for their recantation will set a dangerous precedent.”

It also reiterated that the BuCor – which the DOJ also oversees – holds jurisdiction over the custody and management of convicted PDLs. Speaking to reporters on December 21 to further clarify their stance, DOJ spokesperson Assistant Secretary Mico Clavano said they are still looking for legal remedies to ensure that the PDLs will remain in their prisons.

“Of course, we respect the judiciary, although in this case, sa tingin namin medyo nag-overreach nang kaunti when they directed the DOJ and the BuCor to transfer the witnesses from Sablayan back to the NBP (Of course, we respect the judiciary, although in this case, we think they overreached a bit when they directed the DOJ and the BuCor to transfer the witnesses from Sablayan back to the NBP),” Clavano said.

Prosecution’s role, De Lima’s reaction

In the court order, the judge mentioned that the prosecution filed a manifestation with motion to transfer PDL witnesses to the NBP on December 5. The prosecution explained that transfer of the PDLs was requested “to facilitate smooth and easy access to them.” This prosecution was under the DOJ.

But Clavano said a different statement about the prosecution’s role in the transfer: “As per our [conversation] doon sa panel of [prosecutors], hindi naman sila sumakay doon sa request, kundi they left it up to the discretion of the court to decide kung ano’ng gustong gawin ng court.

(As per our conversation with the panel of prosecutors, they did not ride with the request, but instead, they left it up to the discretion of the court to decide what the court would want to do.)

“Are they afraid of the truth? Why are they blocking it? The DOJ’s refusal to transfer 11 inmate-witnesses in my last remaining drug case from Sablayan to NBP only shows the agency’s continuing attempt to stand by its former secretaries’ (Aguirre and Guevarra) bogus charges against me,” De Lima said in a statement on December 22.

De Lima said the DOJ has a reason in keeping the PDLs isolated in Mindoro: “The DOJ wants to prevent them from testifying again in court on their recantations in order to stop the identification of DOJ officials who played a crucial role in forcing them to lie and fabricate evidence in my cases.”

The former senator and justice secretary also slammed the DOJ’s remarks on the witnesses being convicted felons. De Lima said this has been their stance since the beginning, saying this should have disqualified them from testifying in her case as state witnesses under the witness protection law.

“And yet the DOJ stood by them when it suited their purpose of singing the tune that they wanted. Now that they are recanting, DOJ is saying that they are convicted felons, and that their recantations are not credible. These are the same convict-witnesses DOJ said were credible when they followed what their handlers and the prosecutors wanted them to say,” De Lima explained.

De Lima’s stance on convicts being state witnesses was the main point of her pending complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman against former DOJ chiefs Vitaliano Aguirre II and Menardo Guevarra. Recently, the Court of Appeals sided with De Lima and ordered the Ombudsman to act on De Lima’s complaint filed against Aguirre and Guevarra for “illegally admitting” criminals already convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude.

Must Read

13th witness to recant in De Lima’s remaining drug case

13th witness to recant in De Lima’s remaining drug case

At least 13 witnesses retracted their allegations against De Lima. The most recent one was retired police brigadier general Jerry Valeroso, who said he will recant for the freedom of all those “wrongfully charged” in the court.

After six years, eight months, and 21 days in prison, De Lima was released from her detention facility at the Philippine National Police custodial center on November 13. She was able to gain temporary freedom after Presiding Judge Gito granted her bail, citing the weak allegations against the former senator.Rappler.com

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Jairo Bolledo

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