MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang has ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to stop issuing statements and let the Department of Justice (DOJ) do the talking in connection with the progress of the investigation into the hostage incident last week that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said only Justice Secretary Leila de Lima would be allowed to brief the media and the public on developments in the investigation being conducted by an inter-agency body headed by the DOJ. The NBI is under the DOJ.
“Only one will talk. The NBI, the PNP and all other offices have been told not to issue any announcements, to recourse to the Secretary of Justice, which is a better way of coordinating news,” Lacierda said.
He said the gag order was De Lima’s idea and was meant to avoid confusion.
The gag order came a day after the PNP, through spokesman Senior Superintendent Agrimero Cruz Jr., said all the tourists were killed by the hostage taker and not by friendly fire from members of the Manila police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Cruz cited initial forensic analysis on spent shells recovered inside the bus where the hostages were held for 11 hours.
Lacierda said Chinese officials led by the assistant police commissioner of Hong Kong agreed that the Philippines would have primary jurisdiction over the investigation after meeting with De Lima and Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo. Lacierda said he was present during the meeting.
“They (Chinese) will be coordinating with the Philippine authorities. Today the agreements were that the Chinese authorities will be allowed to examine the bus, as well as the firearms, so it’s being coordinated by the NBI,” he said.
“We had a fruitful discussion a while ago and we hope to see a harmonious relationship with the Chinese authorities here. They will be working under our supervision,” he added.
“They will be observing. They’re here on observer status. Any questions that they may have, they may course through the investigating committee,” he pointed out.
Lacierda also clarified the Chinese authorities would have to seek permission from Philippine officials first before they could do anything like inspecting the bus.
“And we are providing them the courtesy of allowing them to examine the bus together with our authorities present also,” Lacierda said.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma earlier said that the Chinese side would not have an independent probe but would only coordinate with Philippine authorities, in deference to the country’s sovereignty.
A bungled rescue operation was widely seen to have led to the deaths of the tourists. Snipers later killed dismissed police officer Rolando Mendoza after an 11-hour standoff.
The PNP said it would still pursue with vigor its investigation in support of the DOJ-led Joint Incident Investigation and Review Committee.
“Pursuant to a presidential directive, the Joint Incident Investigation and Review Committee is created effective immediately. The Secretary of Justice will sit as the chair with Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo and the communications group as members,” said the PNP’s Cruz. “The Secretary of Justice will be the sole person who will give or issue statements and updates on the hostage incident,” he said.
“Very strict yung kanilang directive, any information about the hostage incident should come from them,” said Cruz during a briefing held at Camp Crame in Quezon City.
He declined to comment on the PNP’s action on the police officers who posed for photos like tourists with the ill-fated bus in the background.
Their pictures had been uploaded on the popular social network site Facebook.
The PNP spokesman assured the public that SWAT men have been sent away for retraining.
A police official, who declined to be identified, lamented that the deaths have been more emphasized in the media than the rescue of the 13 other tourists and four staff.
“Let us not forget that 17 people were rescued from the bus but that was not highlighted by the media,” the officer said.
NCRPO chief Director Leocadio Santiago, for his part, said his investigators would only take action upon orders from the DOJ.
“It is now the DOJ who would release the progress of the hostage incident investigation. We are on standby or support mode and would move only upon the direction of the DOJ,” said Santiago.
Santiago said all the pieces of evidence gathered by the NCRPO had been turned over to the NBI.
Meanwhile, De Lima said they have agreed to Hong Kong’s request to inspect the bus, examine the firearms and interview witnesses but with certain conditions.
“They are going to do their inspection for their own purposes, but (it’s) very clear that they do that only by stages and only after our investigative authorities like PNP, SOCO and NBI have completed their own examination,” she told reporters.
She explained that the foreign authorities were allowed to conduct their bullet trajectory examination only after the PNP and SOCO (scene of the crime operatives) had completed the inspection of the bus.
“That goes with the firearms examination and interviews of witnesses also. They cannot do that without us completing our own firearms examinations and interviews and questioning of witnesses,” the DOJ chief added.
“They will always have to be guided, assisted, escorted by our own representatives. It depends on which agency has conducted the particular examination, but always the DOJ will be there to supervise,” she said.
She added that they would attend hearings on the case but only as observers.
“They cannot interfere in the proceedings. If they have questions, they can course them through us. But it will still be the prerogative of the committee whether or not to ask the questions coursed through our committee,” she explained.
The DOJ chief said both sides have agreed on “certain protocols.”
She said Hong Kong investigators led by assistant police commissioner Ng Ka Shing had assured her and other Philippine officials of their commitment to respect the jurisdiction of the Philippine government over the case.
Ng told reporters that they in the country “to collect all necessary evidence for our inquiries.”
“We respect the jurisdiction of Philippine authorities and we will do our examination, our work with the advice and company of Philippine offices,” Ng said.
“Under their company, we will be working together and we will be cooperating in gathering all necessary evidence,” he said.
“We have primary jurisdiction in conducting the investigation since the crime happened here. And it is our primary responsibility to find out exactly what happened and to take appropriate action,” De Lima said in response.
“With or without the demand of the Hong Kong authorities, the Philippine government is under obligation, as both legal and moral duty, under both foreign and domestic laws, (to investigate the incident),” she said.
She said it was also agreed during the meeting that a final report on the case would only be given to the Hong Kong government upon completion of the probe.
“The agreement is that they can only get it after we complete our investigation, which the Philippines has committed to submit to Hong Kong authorities. Only then can they see the reports,” she said.
“It will be premature for us to be submitting preliminary and partial reports,” she explained.
“There will be no premature disclosure, findings, observations, unnecessary comments, etc. until the reports are completed,” she said.
She also stressed that Hong Kong media would be handled by Hong Kong authorities, as agreed during the meeting.
De Lima said the incident review committee is expected to consolidate the reports of the PNP, SOCO and NBI within 10 days at the earliest.
She said the 10-day period is a self-imposed deadline.
President Aquino wanted a report in five days, but she said she asked for an extension.
“Ten days is possible but that would be on our best effort already and we cannot guarantee that because it all depends on the product of the investigations from various agencies,” she said. “Evaluation, findings, and recommendations are very crucial since these will include determination of liabilities, or determination of culpability,” she stressed.
The reports, she said, would include statements from witnesses, resource persons, and even from Mendoza’s brother, SPO2 Gregorio Mendoza.
She also revealed that the NBI would invite Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim “for interview and possible execution of statement” on Wednesday.
Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, who was on indefinite leave as Manila Police District chief, earlier told a Senate hearing that Lim called the shots during the hostage incident. Lim has denied this.
De Lima said Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno and other media personalities would also be summoned by the NBI.
She said they would also coordinate with Hong Kong authorities regarding the possible taking of depositions or interviews with survivors of the tragedy. With Edu Punay, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Non Alquitran