MANILA, Philippines - Survivors of the Aug. 23 hostage tragedy or the victims’ families may file criminal cases on their own against officials deemed liable for the botched rescue operation but were recommended only for administrative sanctions by Malacañang, Palace officials said yesterday.
“The victims (or their families) can file civil or criminal cases against whom they believe are liable,” Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Eduardo de Mesa told Palace reporters.
A Palace legal team has recommended only administrative charges against seven officials found liable for the bungled rescue operation.
The officials include Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay, former Manila Police District director. Only the brother of
hostage taker Rolando Mendoza has been recommended for criminal prosecution. Cleared were President Aquino’s close friend Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno and former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Jesus Verzosa.
The recommendations have drawn flak from survivors of the tragedy who are from Hong Kong.
The Department of Justice-led incident investigation and review committee (IIRC) has reportedly pushed for tougher sanctions against the officials.
“There has to be proof beyond reasonable doubt. Mistaken judgment is not a crime. Error in judgment is administrative in nature. There was no intention to absolve anybody of liability. We will file charges against those who deserve to be charged,” De Mesa said.
“Our concern was doing the right thing and setting things right. So it’s futile to file charges against them. Charging somebody that will not prosper is not right. It will cause him unnecessary stress, or ruin his career. Criminal law is not an exact science,” he added.
President Aquino also stressed that he would not give in to demand for tougher punishments for the officials.
“The bottom line is you just don’t file cases just because some sectors say so. There should be fairness,” Aquino told reporters.
The PNP, for its part, said it would follow the Palace recommendations but would wait first for any ruling from the National Police Commission.
“We are going to abide by the decision of the review committee of Malacañang. We are going to await the decision or resolution from the Napolcom insofar as the mentioned officers are concerned,” PNP spokesman Senior Superintendent Agrimero Cruz said.
Cruz also stressed that any decision to sanction, suspend, or reassign officials would have to be cleared first with the Commission on Elections. Barangay elections are scheduled on Oct. 25.
“It’s Napolcom which should investigate this. They are going to determine if there is preponderance of evidence so that they can reach a resolution on how to proceed with the proceedings insofar as the four officers are concerned,” he said.
Aside from Magtibay, the other PNP officers listed in the review are National Capital Region Police Office head Director Leocadio Santiago Jr., hostage negotiator Superintendent Orlando Yebra, and Manila Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) commander Chief Inspector Santiago Pascual III.
“As uniformed personnel, we adhere to a code of loyalty and discipline in the police service,” Santiago said.
“It is good that our President pursues equity of justice for all,” he added.
Lim accepts fate
Lim, for his part, said he accepts Malacañang’s recommendations but insists he should not be held liable for the tragic outcome of the hostage incident.
“I accept the verdict as recommended by the Palace review committee. So whatever it is, I accept. I have the highest respect for President Aquino. I accept his verdict as recommended by the review committee. Whatever it is, I am going to accept,” said Lim in a press briefing.
“If they file a criminal case against me, I will accept it and will face the charges. But that does not mean that I am guilty of what I am being charged with,” Lim said. “I will defend myself.”
He said he was glad that Malacañang disregarded the IIRC’s recommendation that he be criminally charged.
“If you can point to any one of us, if you can prove one of us thought of killing the hostages, I would commit suicide right now,” he said.
He also vowed to testify in court against Gregorio Mendoza whom he accused of conniving with his brother, the hostage taker.
“As a matter of procedure, if you understand the investigation procedure, even the killer should be charged. Although he is already dead, he should also be charged. It is not within the authority of the investigator to exclude him from the complaint. The killer should likewise be charged before the fiscal or prosecutor’s office. It is incumbent upon the prosecutor after the presentation of the death certificate of the suspect to drop his name because death extinguishes criminal liability,” he said.
“What I’m thinking now is if there is a hostage again, I will not go there. I will just stay here at City Hall. My mistake was to go to the scene in my desire to help,” said Lim, who once served as Manila Police chief.
“Whatever it is, all I can say is I have the highest respect for everyone. They’re also doing their duties, most particularly President Noynoy, who saw to it that justice is done,” he said.
He also took up the cudgels for Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez who was among those recommended for administrative sanction.
“She even went out of her way to accommodate the request for the release of the hostages,” Lim said.
Voicing support for Lim was former senator Aquilino Pimentel, who said there is no specific law automatically assigning the leadership of a local crisis management committee (CMC) to a city or municipal mayor.
He said the only regulation that provides for the creation of CMC is a memorandum circular issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government in 2003.
“I assume there is no other law that created and govern the activities of the CMC,” Pimentel told The STAR.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joker Arroyo said the Palace’s decision to review the IIRC report and make its own recommendation does not bode well for the Truth Commission created to look into the irregularities committed by the Arroyo administration.
“You know the Truth Commission is composed of very respectable people chaired by no less than a former chief justice of the Supreme Court. Then are we to say now that we are going to be reviewed by lesser legal minds?” Arroyo asked.
“Because if that is the case, that cheapens the TC. And there is no finality with whatever the TC says. This is the impact of that review. They have trifled with the review process,” he added.
But Sen. Gregorio Honasan, chairman of the Senate committee on public order and illegal drugs, said the President’s decision should not be questioned because it was he who created the IIRC.
“He made the announcement based on those mechanisms he created so he assumes full responsibility,” he said.
“We cannot question that. In fact, if you look back even before the IIRC, there were only two public officials who assumed responsibility – the President and the ground commander who went on indefinite leave,” Honasan said, referring to Magtibay.
He said the Senate would be conducting its own investigation in aid of legislation. “That’s why we’re waiting for the final report, official copy, so that we can look at the gaps that will allow us to intervene through legislation,” Honasan said.
At the House of representatives, Minority Leader Edcel Lagman said, “The death of eight foreign tourists due to irresponsible handling of the crisis situation makes it hard to justify the President’s action to exculpate everyone involved from criminal negligence.”
For his part, Cotabato Rep. Jesus Sacdalan said Mr. Aquino would still be criticized for “either being too harsh or too lenient no matter what the results of the Palace review were.”
Cleared in the bungled hostage rescue, Verzosa called on the public to move on and help the Aquino administration in its effort to steer the country to progress.
“Mixed reactions on P-Noy’s IIRC decision are understandable in a free society. But too much politics would hurt reform and development efforts of the President and initiatives of well-meaning citizens,” he said in a statement.
“The time to consolidate, heal and push forward is now,” Verzosa, who called himself Citizen Jess, said in his statement.
Delon Porcalla, Philippine Star