(Updated 5:42 p.m.) President Benigno Aquino III may be among the personalities who will be invited by the committee formed to investigate the Aug. 23 Manila hostage tragedy that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
At a news briefing Tuesday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, head of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), said they are not discounting the possibility of inviting Aquino, who was criticized for his government’s botched handling of the hostage incident.
She, however, said that at present, there is no plan to invite the President.
“That's not being ruled out. Although at the moment, there is no such plan. If we see in the documents, there is a need to get some information from the President, we will consider that. For the moment, there is no such plan," De Lima said.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) formed the IIRC pursuant to Aquino’s order to conduct a thorough inquiry on the incident that has been condemned by Chinese nationals.
During the briefing, De Lima issued the four-page joint order of the DOJ and DILG formalizing the creation of the IIRC and outlining its members and functions.
De Lima, who was previously the review committee’s vice chair, will now serve as the head. Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who used to head the committee, will be her vice chair.
Its members include Citizens Action Against Crime chair Teresita Ang-See to represent the Filipino-Chinese community, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas president Herman Basbaño to represent the media, and Integrated Bar of the Philippines governor for Eastern Mindanao Roan Libarios.
The body will also have a technical working group composed of a DOJ undersecretary, representatives from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the DILG, and DOJ prosecutors designated by De Lima.
Conflict of interest
Asked why Robredo is now vice chair, De Lima said the review committee has a two-pronged task: to gather the facts and evidence in the August 23 bus siege, and to conduct an institutional review of the government agencies involved in the incident.
Because the DILG oversees the Philippine National Police (PNP), Robredo was transferred to the vice chairmanship to prevent any conflict of interest.
“The committee has to do the in-depth investigation of the whole incident. That is why we (Robredo and I) switched roles," she said.
In an ambush interview in Malacañang, Aquino said he does not see conflict of interest in Robredo's case because DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno is the one in charge of overseeing the PNP.
"Part of the brief I gave to Secretary Robredo is that in this point in time he concentrates on so many other things that affect the local governments primarily, rather than the police. The police . . . I designated Undersecretary Puno to be more directly in charge, I don’t think there should be a conflict of interest," said Aquino.
Aquino said Puno may be held "partly" accountable for the way the hostage incident was handled, but he pointed out that it was Manila Police District (MPD) Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay — who took a leave following the incident — who was the ground commander at the time.
Aquino reiterated his dissatisfaction with the way the police handled the situation.
"I was also informed that the [National Capital Region Police Office] was there to back up Magtibay. I was informed that the [Special Action Force] will be the primary unit task in case there is a need to employ the final option. A lot of these things did not happen and that will be part of the subject of the investigation," he said.
Aquino said he was assured that the DOJ's probe will be over in two weeks.
De Lima said the committee members will meet on Thursday and may conduct “marathon" formal proceedings for clarificatory questioning on Friday, Saturday, and Monday. The proceedings will be held at the multipurpose hall of the DOJ building in Manila.
The committee has the power to administer oaths, summon witnesses, take testimonies, issue compulsory processes to compel concerned individuals to submit pieces of evidence, among others.
The committee will submit its findings to the Office of the President, through Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr. The Office of the President will then use the committee’s findings as basis for the top-level delegation the country will send to Hong Kong.
Vice President Jejomar Binay will act as the top-level body’s chair, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda as members.
The DOJ-DILG joint order outlined the following functions of the IIRC:
* Make a comprehensive finding of facts on the hostage-taking’s sequence of events, starting from the commandeering of the Hong Thai Travel tourist bus in Fort Santiago to the deadly shootout between the hostage-taker, Rolando Mendoza, and the policemen;
* Detail the negotiation process, the police actions and inactions, and the causes of deaths and injuries of the victims;
* Evaluate the response of law enforcement officers, government officials, and other parties to the incident and determine whether they complied with existing protocols in hostage crises;
* Conduct an audit and inventory of the training equipment of responding security forces;
* Review the PNP and law enforcement bodies’ standards in administrative cases involving their offices and personnel; and
* Recommend polices and programs to prevent another bloodbath from happening.
Clarification on gag order
Last Monday, De Lima issued a gag order to prevent investigative bodies like the PNP and the NBI from issuing “premature disclosures" of investigation results to media.
On Tuesday, De Lima clarified that the order does not include media coverage, reacting to reports that media men were barred from entering the warehouse in Camp Bagong Diwa where the ill-fated bus was being inspected by Hong Kong police investigators.
“I wish to clarify that the gag order did not order the barring of media coverage of, for example, yesterday's inspection by the Hong Kong team. So I think there was a misinterpretation of that gag order," said De Lima.
“The gag order I issued is a limited one. You (media) are free to cover any and all that is happening in the course of the investigation. You are free to make your own stories on what is going on," she added.
De Lima, however, reminded media still has to observe the inspection of the bus “within a reasonable distance" so as not to disrupt the course of the inspection.
De Lima also stressed the review committee will base its findings on the Philippine government's investigation and not on the Hong Kong team’s parallel probe.
However, she said the committee may also take note of the HK’s probe results only after the Philippine committee wraps up its own probe.
“There will be no sharing of reports while the investigation is ongoing," she said.
She assured that there will be no whitewash in the investigation. — with Jam L. Sisante/KBK/RSJ, GMANews.TV