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Update on PDAF cases of 3 senators

IN HIS last State of the Nation Address, President Aquino pointed to the Maguindanao massacre, the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) cases of three senators, the criminal charges against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) and the ouster of then Chief Justice Renato C. Corona as among the main achievements of his “daang matuwid”(straight path) anticorruption program.

Three major battles. Having written on the Maguindanao massacre last Sunday, I will now update the readers on the cases against Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and Juan Ponce Enrile for plunder and graft allegedly committed through the misuse of the PDAF. I will take up GMA’s cases in another column.

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After conducting the appropriate preliminary investigations and after finding “probable cause” in the charges lodged by the Department of Justice, the Office of the Ombudsman (OOO) filed separate informations (or charge sheets) which were raffled to three different divisions of the Sandiganbayan (SBN)—to the First Division for Revilla’s cases, the Third Division for Enrile’s and the Fifth Division for Estrada’s.
When charged with capital offenses, the accused usually launch three major battles to win their freedom:

(1) an initial battle to stop the court from issuing warrants of arrest and detention on the ground that the criminal information and the supporting documents do not, on their face, show “probable cause;”

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(2) an ensuing fight for bail on the ground that the prosecution’s evidence is not “strong;” and

(3) a final battle for acquittal on the ground that the evidence presented during the trial failed to prove their guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.” Jinggoy Estrada. During the course of these three major battles, there are “incidents” which the SBN rules upon with “interlocutory” orders. Many times, these orders are challenged by the losing parties via petitions for certiorari in the Supreme Court.
In the case of Estrada, the Fifth Division found probable cause to arrest and detain him. This finding, contained in an SBN interlocutory order, was challenged by Estrada in, but was upheld by, the Supreme Court. The SBN is now conducting bail hearings every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to determine the “strength” of the prosecution’s evidence.
Relevant to Estrada are three petitions for certiorari in the Supreme Court questioning three SBN interlocutory orders: Two were filed by Estrada (1) to exclude his alleged bank transactions reported by the Anti-Money Laundering Council, and(2) to suppress the cash and check disbursement reports and testimony of witness Benhur Luy; and one was filed by the OOO contesting the SBN’s order refusing to transfer Estrada’s confinement from the PNP Custodial Center to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig.

Bong Revilla. Like Estrada, Revilla challenged the SBN’s finding of probable cause. However, his petition for certiorari was dismissed by the Supreme Court. In fact, the proceedings in his case are now in a more advanced stage: The SBN fully heard and denied his application for bail on Dec. 1, 2014. His motion for reconsideration against this SBN order was likewise denied on March 26, 2015.

Going into the third battle, the First Division set the pretrial on Sept 30. However, no schedule for trial on the merits has been scheduled by the SBN as of this writing. Relevant to Revilla, three petitions for certiorari have been lodged in the Supreme Court; two were filed by Revilla questioning
(1) the OOO’s finding of probable cause, and (2) the SBN’s order denying him bail; and one was filed by the OOO seeking the transfer of Revilla from the PNP Custodial Center to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig.

(Note: Both the Fifth and First Divisions denied the OOO’s motion to transfer Estrada and Revilla, respectively, to the regular jail at Camp Bagong Diwa. Hence, the OOO filed similar but separate petitions to reverse these denials.)

Juan Ponce Enrile. Taking a more proactive stance, Enrile, through his counsels Estelito Mendoza and Eleazar Reyes, is challenging the usual procedure cited above via two petitions for certiorari in the Supreme Court. In the first, he contends that the information for plunder filed by the OOO is invalid because it did not allege enough specific facts to enable him to prepare
his defense.

In the second, he posits that the Constitution guarantees bail to the accused at all times. The only exception to this general rule is when (1) the evidence of guilt is strong, and

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(2) the penalty prescribed by law for the offense is reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment.

Consequently, he contends that until the prosecution is able to prove that its evidence is “strong,” the accused cannot be detained. Illogical and unconstitutional therefore—or so he claims—is the present procedure of immediately detaining the accused without bail prior to the court’s ruling that the evidence is indeed “strong.”
He explains also that even if he is convicted of plunder, the penalty of reclusion perpetua cannot be imposed on him because he should be credited with the two mitigating circumstances of old age for being over 70 years, and of voluntary surrender.

The Supreme Court will resolve these petitions soon. Should Enrile win any of them, he may be freed from detention.

In sum, given the fact that trial on the merits has not even begun, these plunder and graft cases of the three senators cannot be decided during P-Noy’s term, which ends on June 30, 2016.

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