Impatient over pork
Ten of the 20 members of the Senate blue ribbon committee are reported by Rappler to have found probable cause in the pork barrel cases and recommended the filing of plunder charges against Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile and Ramon Revilla Jr. This is practically a majority given that the three affected senators are expected to recuse. Notably, Estrada’s half-brother, Sen. JV Ejercito, signed the committee report, telling Rappler, “It’s the right thing to do.”
Complicated offense. The report was signed amid implacable impatience over the pork barrel scam. Readers rue: Why is the government taking so long in prosecuting the culprits? Janet Lim Napoles was charged, arrested and detained months ago, but her cohorts still roam around; some even travel abroad. Cedric Lee, Deniece Cornejo and their coaccused have been arrested, detained and arraigned even if their cases happened only recently. Why the difference?
To answer the question, let us compare: (1) the law and (2) the evidence needed to prove the facts in these high-profile cases.
The respondents in the pork cases are charged mainly with plunder. Under Republic Act No. 7080 (Plunder Law), this crime is committed by “[a]ny public officer who, by himself or in connivance with members of his family, relatives by affinity and consanguinity, business associates, subordinates or other persons, amasses, accumulates or acquires ill-gotten wealth [of at least P50 million] through a combination or series of overt or criminal acts…”
To repeat, plunder is not just one crime but a “combination or series” of crimes, like malversation of public funds, bribery, fraudulent disposition of public property, etc. Clearly, plunder is a complicated offense because it involves not just one criminal act, but a “combination or series” of acts which, when taken together, establishes an “overall scheme or conspiracy.” When committed by high-ranking public officials (and their cohorts who may be private individuals), plunder is cognizable by the Sandiganbayan (SBN), not the
Regional Trial Courts (RTC).
Uncomplicated crime. On the other hand, Napoles, Lee, Cornejo and their coaccused were separately charged with serious illegal detention or kidnapping, which—under Art. 167 of the Revised Penal Code—is committed by “any private individual who shall kidnap or detain another, or in any manner deprive him of his liberty…”
This short definition clearly shows that this crime is straightforward and uncomplicated. It is easy to perpetrate, investigate and prove because it comprises only one act (though it can also be composed of several acts) that deprives a person of the ability to move around freely. Yet, like plunder, it is a capital offense which is not bailable “when the evidence of guilt is strong.”
Lee, Cornejo and their coaccused were arrested pursuant to a warrant of arrest issued by the RTC because of a charge of illegal detention (of Vhong Navarro). Since the accused are private persons, the preliminary investigation was conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ), not the Office of the Ombudsman (OOO), and the cases were filed in the RTC, not in the SBN.
Napoles was arrested pursuant to a warrant of arrest issued by the RTC also because of a charge of illegal detention (of Benhur Luy), not because of plunder arising from the pork scam. The OOO has not yet charged anyone in the SBN due to the pork mess.
In all criminal proceedings whether in the SBN or RTC, prosecutors are required to prove (1) that a crime has been committed and (2) that the accused committed it. Plunder of the public treasury running into billions of pesos had been sufficiently proven by the “truckloads” of evidence gathered by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Commission on Audit (COA). I think that is quite clear.
Big question. The big question, however, is whether the NBI, the COA and the whistleblowers have produced enough evidence to show that each of the respondents, particularly the three senators, committed the crime. I think this is the principal issue that delays the filing of the informations in the SBN.
Care in pinpointing whom to charge is quite critical not only because the filing of the informations may result in the arrest and detention of the accused but also because, under the Plunder Law, the indicted senators (and other public officials) “shall be suspended from office.” This could disrupt the functions of the Senate.
While only “probable cause” is required before a case can be filed in court, I think the OOO should go beyond this legal requirement and make sure the evidence will be sufficient to convict the accused. A little delay can be excused provided the prosecution can eventually secure the punishment of the culprits.
Also, the OOO must make sure that the constitutional rights of the suspects are respected, as it did when it promptly sent to Estrada the documents he petitioned the Supreme Court to give him. And rightly so, to prevent further delay in case the Court finds merit in Estrada’s petition (as I think it would have) and reverts the case back to the OOO.
Like the Maguindanao massacre case, the pork barrel cases are a litmus test of our justice system. Our people are totally disgusted at this outrageous scam. They will never forgive or forget any mishandling, cover-up, or political shenanigan to muddle the cases or to protect the guilty. There is only one way to go. Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
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