Prosecutor in Peter Lim case 'saddened' by Aguirre’s probe

MANILA, Philippines – Former state prosecutor now Judge Aristotle Reyes said on Thursday, March 15, that he is "saddened" that he is being investigated for just doing his job.

Reyes is one half of the panel that dismissed drug trade and conspiracy charges against Cebu-based businessman Peter Lim and Kerwin Espinosa.

As a former prosecutor, nakakalungkot na parang naging ganyan ‘yung resulta ng trabaho namin, na hindi naman kami puwedeng magdecide against sa tao na wala namang ebidensya dahil sa public clamor. But we welcome the investigation. We will submit to the investigation para ma-clear 'yung mga insinuations na sinasabi against us,” Reyes said on Thursday over radio dzMM.

(As a former prosecutor, it’s sad that this was the result of doing our jobs, when we can't decide against a person without evidence because of public clamor. But we welcome the investigation. We will submit to the investigation to clear the insinuations against us.)

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Wednesday, March 14, ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct a case buildup against Reyes and fellow prosecutor Michael John Humarang, as well as approving prosecutors Rassendell Rex Gingoyon and Acting Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan. 

Asked about speculation that they made money out of the case, Reyes stressed that his panel arrived at the recommendation "based on evidence."

Drug case 'yan. 'Yan lagi ang implication e (na kumita ka). Pero sino ba naman ang napakalakas na tao na lalaruin itong ganyang klaseng kaso? Nagrurule lang kami based on evidence, sa law. Kung talagang wala, kahit sino ka, kahit sinasabing kaalyado ka ng administrasyon o kalaban, kung talagang wala, ireresolve namin yan, idi-dismiss namin ang case,” Reyes said.

(That’s a drug case. That's always the implication (that you earned). But who would dare manipulate a case like that? We only rule based on evidence, the law. If there’s really nothing, whoever you are, whether you are allied with the administration or not, if there’s no evidence, we will resolve it, we will dismiss the case.)

Who is Reyes? Apart from the Lim-Espinosa case, Reyes’ panel also handled the case on the P6.4-billion worth of shabu smuggled into the country. Reyes’ panel charged the fixer and the middlemen, but cleared former customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon and other Customs officials.

In September 2017, a month after the investigation into Lim and Espinosa began, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Reyes’ appointment papers and promoted him to judge of Lucena City, Quezon. That appointment was not publicized by Malacañang until January 2018. Reyes took his oath in February.

Reyes cleared Faeldon in November 2017, and again in January 2018. The dismissal of charges against Lim and Espinosa was signed in December 2017, but only revealed to media by sources on Monday, March 12.

This is not Reyes’ first controversy. In 2014, when Reyes was handling the Maguindanao massacre cases, he quit the panel, prompting allegations from private prosecutors that he had been bribed.

Reyes said, however, that he quit the panel due to differences over strategies. His superior, then justice undersecretary Francisco Baraan III, defended him. 

Reyes served at the DOJ for 15 years before becoming a judge. The other high-profile cases he handled are the charges against Nur Misuari over the Zamboanga siege in 2013, the stripping of liberty of communist leaders which resulted in an arrest warrant, and the charges against Maute group rebels.

Questions still unanswered. Reyes insisted that the testimony of the police’s lone witness, Marcelo Adorco, was not sufficient to charge Lim and Espinosa especially given the many inconsistencies in the statements.

As in the Faeldon case, which he had dismissed twice, Reyes highlighted that it’s outside the mandate of a prosecutor to hunt for evidence.

Sa pinresent samin ng CIDG, napakahina, nag-iisa yung witness. Meron naman sana silang corroborative witness and yet hindi naman nila iprinisent? May isa pang witness eh, pinagtestify nila and yet nagrecant ‘nung prinesent nila doon,” Reyes said in his radio interview.

(What CIDG presented to us was so weak, they had only one witness. They could have had another corroborative witness but they didn't present it. There's another witness who testified [in court] but he recanted.)

The first question is, if not the prosecutors, why couldn’t the NBI be more involved? Aguirre has always tapped the NBI for comprehensive investigations into high-profile cases. Aguirre also issued a Department Order that authorizes the NBI to investigate cases in the drug war.

The second question is, why is Espinosa still under the Witness Protection Program (WPP)? The CIDG complained to Aguirre in September 2017 that Espinosa – a government witness – was recanting and flip-flopping on his statements. 

Philippine National Police (PNP) Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) chief Director Roel Obusan  said on Wednesday that the police did not submit Espinosa's testimony at the November 2016 Senate hearing, where he admitted his involvement in illegal drugs, since the alleged drug lord retracted it in his counteraffidavit submitted to Reyes' panel.

Espinosa is still under the WPP, the DOJ confirmed on Wednesday.

The third question is, why was the dismissal of the drug charges against the alleged drug lords and their supposed accomplices not made public? Reyes said the panel forwarded the dismissal to Aguirre’s office in February 2018. Justice Undersecretary Erickson Balmes said Aguirre only found out about the dismissal on Tuesday, March 13, or 3 months after the recommendation was made.

Though the dismissal was signed in December, the DOJ only notified complainant CIDG in February. The CIDG chief declined to respond to questions on why they were notified two months late.

"Tanungin mo na lang sa kanila kung normal sa kanila. I will not answer the questions na hindi ko ginagawa (Ask [the DOJ] if that is normal to them. I will not answer questions on things I didn't do)," Obusan said.

Duterte is  supposedly fuming over the dismissal of the charges, according to Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who relayed the President's sentiments over the recommendation to the media. Roque said Duterte would review the dismissal himself. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

image