MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte cannot be impeached based on his declaration that he would not allow cops implicated in the slay of Albuera mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr to go to jail, his chief counsel said on Wednesday, December 7.
Chief Presidential Counsel Salvador Panelo made the statement as he dismissed Senator Leila de Lima’s claim that Duterte's declaration is tantamount to "betrayal of public trust," an impeachable offense.
“Of course not. Why should it be an impeachable offense? It’s not even an offense,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Earlier that day, Duterte declared he would not let Police Superintendent Marvin Marcos, former chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Region 8, and 23 other police officers, go to prison despite the recommendation of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to file multiple murder charges against them.
Panelo disagreed with De Lima that Duterte betrayed the public trust, saying that the NBI findings are not enough to prove policemen murdered Espinosa. It would be a different matter if a court decided they were guilty, he said.
“It doesn’t mean the NBI is correct because the court will have to decide whether they are correct or not. The presumption of innocence applies to all the accused in this case. Moreover, the presumption of regularity is not yet overcome so they have to file charges,” he said.
Panelo said Duterte, a former prosecutor, will respect court decisions. "He’s a lawyer. A lawyer will always consider what the court will say. In the meanwhile, the presumption of innocence applies," he said.
Without charges by a court, "it is the duty of the President to provide and help his people to defend themselves,” he said.
While he declared he would protect the Leyte cops from imprisonment, Duterte also said could still change his mind if the NBI produces stronger evidence to support its recommendation against the police officers.
Panelo highlighted Duterte’s promise not to interfere with the filing of charges against the cops.
“The NBI investigation result shows that the President does not interfere with any government agency doing their work because if he had interfered, then maybe there would have been a different result,” said Panelo.
Responding to questions at a news conference on Thursday, December 8, PNP chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said Duterte's pledge of protection to the Leyte police team is just an affirmation of his support for the police in the war on drugs.
“The President just wants to express his support to the operating troops….He just wants to convey to his PNP that ‘I’m with you, I’m supporting you,’” Dela Rosa said, adding that it should not be taken to mean that the Chief Executive would disregard any court decision.
'Good lawyers' for Leyte cops
The PNP said that by saying that he would not allow the cops to go to jail, the President simply implied that he would “look for ways” to help them such as giving them “good lawyers.”
“Kung lalabas ‘yung warrant nila, baka puwedeng mag-appeal sa issuing court na ilower ‘yung charge from murder to homicide para makapagpost ng bail. But not really hindi siya observe rule of law, legal procedures,” Dela Rosa said.
(If warrants [for their arrest] are issued, maybe these can be appealed before the issuing court to lower the charge from murder to homicide so they can post bail. But not really that he would not observe the rule of law, legal procedures.)
On November 5, Marcos and his team raided the Leyte prison where Espinosa was detained and shot him dead, allegedly because he fought back. A Senate inquiry into the incident described Espinosa's death as a "rubout," the same finding of the NBI.
Espinosa was among the first alleged drug personalities named by Duterte, who ordered the mayor and his son, alleged drug lord Kerwin Espinosa, to surrender.
At the Senate probe into the mayor's death, Kerwin alleged that Marcos solicited campaign funds for his wife from the alleged drug lord.
Marcos was relieved over suspected drug links but was reinstated after Duterte himself ordered it. Duterte claims he ordered Marcos’ reinstatement because he was conducting an investigation that required the police official to stay in his post. The President has refused to explain further. – with a report from Bea Cupin/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 firstname.lastname@example.org.