DOJ assigns prosecutor to NAIA for bullet scam victims

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The justice department has designated a prosecutor to stay inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) as a way to protect passengers from the alleged laglag-bala (bullet-planting) scam.

The scheme supposedly involves airport personnel who plant bullets in the bags of unsuspecting passengers to extort money. (READ: How to curb 'laglag-bala' modus and airport extortion)

Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesperson Emmanuel Caparas told reporters on Friday, November 13, that the airport prosecutor is tasked to immediately determine if a passenger caught with a bullet inside his or her luggage will be charged in court. 

Caparas said the justice department started deploying a prosecutor to NAIA last week to help avoid inconvenience among passengers. The DOJ plans to assign prosecutors to other air gateways in the country as well. 

According to him, the prosecutor to be sent to NAIA is instructed by Justice Secretary Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa as well as Prosecutor General Claro Arellano to speed up the inquest proceedings and to weigh the evidence.

The assigned prosecutor is also expected to check the profile of the passenger.

“The prosecutor can make a call, all points available to him, talk to the passenger, after all that, if the passenger is harmless, [the prosecutor] can make the call using better judgment,” Caparas said.

He added that the assignment of a prosecutor to NAIA will lessen cases where a passenger suspected to be a victim of the laglag-bala scam would be missing his or her flight. 

“The stationing of the fiscal there [at the airport] is one way for now to be able to shorten the time of going to the fiscal, filing a complaint, and determining whether or not a case should be filed at the moment [because] ang pasahero hindi na nakakaalis (the passengers end up missing their flights),” Caparas said.

He added that the scam “affects the lives of people unnecessarily and unfairly.” 

“There are procedures in law, there are legal provisions that allow us to take certain measure to protect the rights of the general public, whether you are a passenger or not, and it also protects the rights of those who are looking after the security of our airports,” said Caparas. 

Caparas also said that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) asked for a 15-day extension to submit its initial report on the investigation into whether an extortion syndicate is behind the laglag-bala scam.

He said that the NBI is still waiting for NAIA officials to submit to them copies of closed closed circuit television recordings in NAIA. 

OWWA counter in NAIA

Meanwhile, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) administrator Rebecca Calzado said in a statement Friday that OWWA created a counter inside the NAIA premises to attend to the needs of overseas Filipino workers (OFWS).

Calzado said that two Taiwan-bound OFWs, who she did not name, became the latest victims of the laglag-bala scam in NAIA Terminal 1 on Thursday. 

She said that members of the Department of Labor and Employment's inter-agency team along with lawyers from OWWA, the Public Attorney's Office, and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration extended support to the two OFWs "who were visibly traumatized by the experience."

According to Calzado, the two OFWs were released to the OWWA's custody and are currently staying at the OWWA Halfway Home. The agency is also coordinating with the OFWs' local recruitment agencies for the re-booking of their tickets.

The OWWA chief issued Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar (PDOS) Advisory No. 08, Series of 2015 as well, advising all accredited PDOS providers to remind participants not to carry items prohibited by Republic Act No 10591 or the "Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act." 

Not guilty

The announcements from the DOJ and OWWA come on the same day the case of laglag-bala victim and Filipino overseas worker Gloria Ortinez was dismissed by the Pasay City Prosecutor’s Office.

The 56-year-old was arrested and prevented from leaving the country for Hong Kong after authorities at NAIA 2 claimed to have found a bullet wrapped in red cloth inside her bag. (READ: Susan Ople calls for release of NAIA 'bullet planting' scam victim)

However, state prosecutors supported Ortinez’s claim that she was merely a victim of the scam. 

“There can be no conviction unless the prosecution shows that the accused knowingly possessed the prohibited articles in his person or that the animus possidendi (intent to possess or malevolent intent to use) is shown to be present together with his possession of such article,” the resolution said.

It also said that a “bullet is a harmless article without the corresponding gun or firearm to fire it.”

Apart from the cases of Ortinez and the two Taiwan-based OFWs, 6 other cases of laglag-bala victims have been publicized, sparking public outrage

Twenty-year-old American missionary Lane Michael White, Filipino balikbayan Rhed Austria de Guzman, a teenager bound for Korea, Japanese national Kazunobu Sakamoto, 68-year-old Revelina Combis, 60-year-old Augusto Dagan, and 65-year-old Caviteño Nimfa Fontamillas were all caught with a bullet inside their luggage, which they all denied owning.

Several of the victims admitted that airport personnel extorted them for money in exchange for their freedom.

Authorities said there are other recorded laglag-bala cases, however. 

The Senate is currently investigating the controversy. In a statement sent to reporters on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano urged the government "to get its act together and ensure the general safety of the people" from the bullet planting scam. 

“People are afraid. Everyone who goes to our airports is bulletproofing their bags. They feel that if they are victimized, a case will be filed against them before someone listens to them. Takot na takot ang mamamayan dahil ang gobyerno ay hindi maramdaman (The people are afraid because they cannot feel the presence of their government),” Cayetano said. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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