MANILA, Philippines—Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno may be among his closest friends, but President Benigno Aquino III told the Inquirer on Monday night they would not escape responsibility for the botched hostage rescue on Aug. 23.
“I think the easiest to prove is neglect of duty,” Mr. Aquino said of charges recommended against Lim, head of the local crisis management committee (CMC) that was largely blamed for the fiasco that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead and brought international embarrassment to the country.
When asked if he had adopted the recommendations of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), Mr. Aquino said, “My instructions were that let’s file cases that are winnable and send the correct messages.”
He replied “meron” (there will be) when asked if cases will be filed against Lim and Puno, key personalities in the 11-hour standoff in a hijacked bus in which the hostage-taker, dismissed Senior Insp. Rolando Mendoza, also was gunned down.
Lim is a longtime friend and ally of the Aquino family while Puno is one of Mr. Aquino’s closest aides and a shooting range buddy.
Mr. Aquino said the exact charges would be included in the review conducted by the Palace legal team on the recommendations of the five-member IIRC headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
He said the Palace would release on Wednesday the rest of the 83-page IIRC report—only 50 pages were earlier posted on the government website—as well as its review by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Chief Presidential Legal Adviser Eduardo de Mesa.
Mr. Aquino said he had the IIRC report reviewed to “apportion the blame” properly on the different officials involved and to have strong cases recommended against them.
He explained the delay in the release of the full IIRC report, which he received shortly before he left for his first overseas trip to the United States.
The President said that before he left for the United States, he was able to read 45 of the 83 pages. But the IIRC made corrections, he said, so he had to read the full report again upon his return.
Mr. Aquino said that aside from unspecified charges, the IIRC report wrongly attributed responsibilities to some of the players.
The President cited the case of chief negotiator Supt. Orlando Yebra. “He should not have been the one directly under the ground commander to call for the intelligence people, the logistics people, all the support groups. That was not his function,” he said.
Mr. Aquino defended Puno, a friend since the presidency of his late mother Corazon Aquino. He described Puno as his “headhunter” for his security.
“Rico played a very big role in getting my security, he looked for friendly forces to help us in both the senatorial and presidential elections. He had formed many relationships over the years and he’s the one really trusted here,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said Puno, an agriculture graduate who sold guns to the military, trained the members of his mother’s Presidential Security Group in shooting.
Asked if he would suspend Puno once charges were recommended or filed against him, Mr. Aquino said: “There is a process for that.”
He added it would be hard for him to find people as trustworthy as Puno.
Asked if Puno handed him his courtesy resignation as he had promised, Mr. Aquino said he did not give Puno a chance to talk when they met upon his return from the United States, but he said he lectured him on what he should have done.
As for the allegations that Puno was involved in “jueteng,” an illegal numbers racket, Mr. Aquino said: “My sources tell me there are people identified with him (who are linked to jueteng) but as far as he’s concerned, I don’t think so.”
Praises for Lim
Mr. Aquino also explained he heaped praises on Lim on Saturday in a program in Tondo for a school and a hospital that the mayor built in record time.
A copy of the IIRC recommendations called for administrative or criminal charges against 13 officials and civilians for the bungled rescue of the busload of Hong Kong tourists taken to Rizal Park by Mendoza who demanded the dismissal of extortion charges against him.
The IIRC found Chief Supt. Rodolfo Magtibay, the sacked director of the Manila Police District, to have the biggest accountability. It accused him of incompetence and disobedience and said that his actions at the critical moments caused the “debacle.”
But the committee singled out Lim for both administrative and criminal charges. In the case of the others, the panel recommended that appropriate agencies conduct a preliminary investigation to determine criminal liability.
The IIRC recommended: “Against Mayor Alfredo S. Lim, the initiation of the corresponding administrative and criminal proceedings for assuming the authority of the on-scene commander in negotiation and tactical action or intervention in contravention of Section 1.7.2 of the CMC Manual, for negligence in his failure to properly organize and constitute the Crisis Management Committee in accordance with the CMC Manual of 2000, for issuing an illegal order during the arrest of Gregorio Mendoza, for abandoning and ordering the on-scene commander to abandon the Advanced Command Post at the height of the hostage crisis and, in general, for failure to perform his duties as CMC Chairman as discussed in the previous section constituting dereliction of duty and gross negligence, in accordance with Sec. 60 (c) of RA 7160.”
Against Puno, “the initiation of the corresponding administrative proceedings is recommended for gross negligence under the appropriate civil service laws, rules and regulations for neglecting to disseminate and ensure the implementation of the order of the President to utilize the PNP SAF-CRG (Philippine National Police Special Action Force-Crisis Response Group) in the assault of the hostaged bus and for failure to exercise with due diligence his supervisory powers over the PNP as ordered by the President.”
The committee also recommended administrative charges against other police officials whom it said should be subjected to a preliminary investigation by an appropriate agency to determine if they should be charged criminally.
They are, aside from Magtibay, retired PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa, Puno, National Capital Region Police Office director Chief Supt. Leocadio Santiago Jr., Yebra, and Manila SWAT head Chief Insp. Santiago Pascual Jr.
Vice Mayor Isko Moreno was also found to have “committed clear acts of negligence and dereliction of duty for not knowing the particular organization and responsibilities of city officials as members of the crisis management committee.”
The IIRC said Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez III “committed serious and inexcusable negligence and gross violation of their office’s own rules of procedure which states that a motion for recommendation in administrative disciplinary cases should be resolved in five days, when Mendoza’s case languished for nine months, and enforced judgment of dismissal which “precipitated the desperate resort to hostage-taking.”
The IIRC also said broadcasters Michael Rogas, Erwin Tulfo, dzXL management and personnel violated their code of ethics and possibly the Revised Penal Code by conducting an interview with Mendoza.
Juliet Labog Javellana, Phil. Daily Inquirer