Drug Raps against Espinosa et al Dropped: Everyone Caught by Surprise
OBVIOUSLY, INSIDERS in the Department of Justice (DOJ) were not happy about setting free well known drug personalities who had figured prominently in the government’s war against drugs. So the DOJ resolution to dismiss the complaints against Peter Lim and Kerwin Espinosa among others for lack of sufficient evidence was leaked to the media.
The Philippine National Police – Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) filed the complaints in July 2017. The dismissal was dated December 20, 2017. No one has explained why DOJ had not made this public nor asked if the DOJ had intended to keep this development a secret.
News of the resolution broke only on Monday afternoon of March 12, sending shockwaves to the public, political circles, including Malacanang, at least judging from the statements made by the presidential spokesperson who described the president’s angry response.
In 2016, Duterte named Lim as part of the country’s topmost drug lords. Espinosa, son of Rolando Espinosa Sr., the mayor of Albuera in Leyte, who was murdered while detained in a cell in the municipal jail, had been in Senate hearings on the Bilibid drug trade where he himself admitted he was a drug dealer. Espinosa also implicated Senator Leila de Lima.
CMFR looked into the reporting of leading broadsheets, primetime newscasts and select news websites from March 12 to 14.
Around 4 p.m. on March 12, GMA News Online and news.ABS-CBN.com posted reports regarding the dismissal with little detail. The report of ABS-CBN News had a screenshot of reporter Ina Reformina’s tweet which shows a photo of the first page of the resolution. Primetime newscasts failed to add any more detail apart from who was cleared of what charges.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin’s stories on Tuesday, March 13 reported that the resolution was signed by Assistant State Prosecutors Michael John Humarang and Aristotle Reyes with approving signatures of Rassendell Rex Gingoyon, senior deputy state prosecutor and Jorge Catalan Jr., acting prosecutor general. The Star reported that media obtained a copy of the resolution from a DOJ insider only on March 12 despite it being signed last year, on December 20. In the resolution, the DOJ cited “inconsistencies and contradictions” with the testimonies of Adorco.
Was the Justice Secretary unaware?
On Tuesday, March 13, the news followed up with Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II’s denial of having anything to do with the dismissal of the charges. “As of the moment, my office will refrain from making unnecessary comment on this particular case since it will eventually be the subject of an automatic review which I will resolve. Procedurally, my office has no hand nor say on the resolution of this case,” he was quoted saying (“DOJ chief: Charges filed vs drug suspects not yet final”).
Aguirre’s claims invited further validation. The Star’s March 14 banner story did note that “Under the DOJ procedures, the secretary of justice only decides on criminal charges once the cases are elevated to his office via petition for review or automatic review in cases of dismissed drug charges” (“Rody: Aguirre to replace Kerwin, Lim in jail if…”). But the 41-page resolution was clear that the panel was going to elevate the case to the secretary for automatic review.
Considering that reporters obtained a copy of the resolution months since it was signed, they had every reason to probe Aguirre if his office had not read or even got wind even of the resolution and why.
Simply carrying Aguirre’s pronouncements was giving him such a generous pass, as obviously the secretary had more explaining to do.
De Lima Link
Reacting to the dismissal, several lawmakers aired their disappointment and were diligently chronicled by media. It did not take long before comparisons were drawn between the dismissed charges versus Lim and company and the ongoing case of De Lima, who has been in detention at the PNP Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City since February 2017.
A TV Patrol report on March 13, included the point of Supt. Joseph Orsos, head of PNP-CIDG Legal Division who said that per DOJ, the CIDG did not present sufficient evidence. “Bakit pwede kay De Lima, hindi pwede kay Kerwin?” he asked, referring to the lack of evidence presented in the case against the senator.
In an Inquirer report on March 14, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, one of De Lima’s lawyers, also echoed the same point: “In the case of the drug lords identified by the President himself, they decided to apply the basic rule requiring [the submission] of corpus delicti as evidence of the crime. In the case of De Lima, there’s no [confiscated illegal drugs presented as evidence]. But she has been in pretrial detention for over a year now” (“How will DOJ now handle De Lima case? Ex-SolGen asks”).
When the media misses the opportunity to probe more deeply into this kind of stunning turn of events, it fails the public’s right to know. Actually, such failure helps public officials who are sworn to serve public interest to take the public for a ride.