MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Thursday, April 5, that he has accepted the resignation of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II.
"I accepted the resignation of Vit Aguirre, my fraternity brother," Duterte announced in a Palace event on Thursday.
There had been talk about Aguirre's impending departure from the Duterte Cabinet even before the Holy Week, but the justice chief's attendance at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, April 4, seemed to suggest otherwise. At the end of the Cabinet meeting, Aguirre even had his photo taken beside Duterte, which he released to the media.
During a Palace briefing on Thursday hours before Duterte's announcement, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that "there was no indication" that Aguirre was on the way out, based on what happened at the Wednesday Cabinet meeting.
The justice chief's resignation follows weeks of speculation after Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said changes in the Cabinet were underway due to Duterte's dissatisfaction with some secretaries.
Aguirre had earlier said he did not feel alluded to by the President's statement.
Drug lords issue
Talks about Aguirre's departure from Duterte government started mid-March when the Department of Justice (DOJ) panel of prosecutors dismissed drug trade charges against self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa and his alleged partner in the Visayan drug trade, Cebu-based businessman Peter Lim.
Lim was among the first alleged drug lords to get a death threat from Duterte himself early in his administration. The dismissal of charges against the alleged big-time drug lord raised doubts on the legitimacy of the government's war on drugs.
It also put the DOJ at odds with the police, as panel of prosecutors blamed the latter for giving them weak evidence against the alleged drug lords. The Philippine National Police, in turn, criticized the prosecutors for not giving police a heads up that they needed stronger evidence against the suspects.
Duterte was furious over the dismissal of charges, and had "joked" about putting Aguirre behind bars if charges against Espinosa and Lim are dismissed with finality, according to his spokesman. This prompted Aguirre to assemble a new team to conduct fresh investigations into the charges. Lim is scheduled to appear before the DOJ on April 12 for new hearings.
In the weeks that followed, more controversies hounded Aguirre and the DOJ.
The DOJ also dismissed charges Bohol Board Member Rey Niño Boniel charged of parricide for killing his wife, Bien-Unido Mayor Gisela Bendong-Boniel. Police involved in the investigation of the case officials slammed the decision as "disturbing and alarming." Following outrage over the ruling, Aguirre overturned his prosecutors' dismissal in a resolution he signed himself.
Aguirre has a long relationship with Duterte. He was a batch ahead of the President at the San Beda Law School, but both are members of the formidable Lex Taleonis Fraternity. (READ: Vitaliano Aguirre: 'Fake news' king to opposition, 'bright boy' to Duterte)
Aguirre served as lawyer for a Davao policeman who was accused of leading killings under the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS).
Aguirre has been floated as one of the candidates for the PDP-Laban's senatorial slate, but he was left out of the list when the party announced a lineup last March.
Aguirre is the 9th official to leave the Duterte Cabinet.
Cabinet officials who left their posts after failing to get the nod of the Commission on Appointments are Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Agrarian Secretary Rafael Mariano, and Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial. – With a report from Lian Buan / Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.