November 28, 2022

WHERE is Gerald Bantag, the former director general of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) and the alleged mastermind in the murders of veteran radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, popularly known as Percy Lapid, and a “middleman” who negotiated payment for the gunman?

Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Charlie Guhit said the subpoena was served at Bantag’s last known residence in Caloocan City on Tuesday but was not received by anyone. Instead authorities placed the document inside a plastic bag, pinned it on the gate of Bantag’s house and declared that it had been served.

The subpoena states that Bantag is required to appear at the Department of Justice (DoJ) building in Manila on November 23 and December 5 in connection with the preliminary investigation on Lapid’s murder and is ordered to submit counter-affidavits and statements from witnesses to be sworn before the panel of prosecutors handling the case.

It also warns that failure to comply “shall be considered as waiver to present [his] defense in the preliminary investigation and the case shall be considered submitted for resolution.”

The writ was signed on November 14 by the three-member panel of prosecutors, which includes Guhit, Deputy State Prosecutor Olivia Laroza-Torrevillas and Senior Assistant Prosecutor Josie Christina Dugay.

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“Per information received, the barangay captain told the process server that DG Bantag is not anymore staying in Caloocan after his appointment in BuCor,” Guhit said in a text message to reporters.

But Barangay Chairman Roel Esmana of Barangay 20 Zone 2 District 2 of Dagat Dagatan showed reporters a copy of a certificate confirming that the address was where Bantag and his wife had lived for 20 years. He said he had issued the certification based on a police request last November 8.

Subpoena served

Nevertheless, Guhit said the subpoena against the former BuCor chief was deemed served because the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) only provided Bantag’s address in Caloocan.

Guhit said Bantag’s lawyer Rocky Thomas Balisong claims that his client is in Baguio City and was not given information on his exact address.

“The NBI and PNP should inform the panel of prosecutors by way of manifestation or appropriate pleading about the new address of DG (Director General) Bantag before we issue another subpoena to DG Bantag,” Guhit said.

Meanwhile, Balisong said “every piece of evidence filed by the prosecution, by the investigators, the police and the NBI will be assessed to determine if there is a need to file a counter-affidavit or just waive it.”

Balisong said they will coordinate with the authorities to facilitate the proper delivery of the subpoena to his client.

“Yes, we can do that [coordinate with authorities with regards to the serving of the subpoena]. We are not avoiding it,” he said. “In fact, we have been announcing that we are eager actually to receive the subpoena and the complaint so we can at least prepare our counter-affidavit.”

“Once we receive that [the subpoena and the complaint] we will closely coordinate also with the DoJ panel,” he pointed out. “We will be cooperating with this investigation.”

Balisong also clarified the statement made by Bantag that he will face the charges filed against him only when Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla steps down from his post.

“The pronouncement of my client was regarding the situation where a warrant of arrest has not yet been issued against him, that was his pronouncement. But as far as the preliminary investigation is concerned, we will take it from the time we receive the subpoena, the complaint, the affidavit of the witnesses — we will assess everything, then we will avail of our remedies available to us. It will all depend on what the contents are of these [pieces of] evidence which was filed against our client, but we will take it at the legal process,” he said.

He said they will carefully study the extrajudicial confession of self-confessed gunman Joel Escorial, the affidavits of the persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) who tagged Bantag as the mastermind in the killings, the death certificates of Mabasa and Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palana, and all the documentary and object evidence which attached to the complaint.

“We have to consider everything,” Balisong said. “It is best for us to look at the actual documents, the actual affidavits, the sworn statements and the pieces of] evidence so that we could at least provide an accurate pronouncement whether or not we will file the counter-affidavit or not necessarily,” Balisong said.

He said they cannot rely on the news accounts being presented in public.

“We want to be sure of what actually has been pronounced,” Balisong added.

Aside from Bantag, subpoenas were also issued to, and served on, BuCor superintendent Ricardo Zulueta and PDLs Denver Mayores, Alvin Labra, Aldrin Galicia, Alvin Peñaredonda, and other unnamed respondents.

‘Resolute, proactive action’

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla emphasized the “resolute and pro-active action” taken by the government in the murder of Mabasa during the 4th cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Philippines currently being held in Geneva, Switzerland.

“In 17 days, we completed the investigation, case build-up and filing of charges against a high ranking government official, the first in decades,” Remulla said in his opening statement delivered before the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday.

“In the process, we uncovered a deeply rooted criminal enterprise inside the corrections pillar — another pillar of our justice system,” he added.

Remulla also shared other “practical examples” in the quest of the Philippine government for reform in its justice system.

He reported that in September and October this year, the DoJ released 728 PDLs, many of whom had served their sentences.

“I am personally committed to continuing regular releases and aim to have 5,000 released by June next year,” said Remulla.

He further reported that the government is decongesting its correction system by decentralizing the prisons, consistent with the Regionalization of Prisons Act.

Remulla revealed that plans are underway for the transfer of the maximum security prison from the NBP to Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, the medium security prison to Tanay, Rizal and the minimum security prison to Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.

He said the DoJ is working closely with the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Supreme Court — through the Justice Sector Coordinating Council — a mechanism for effective coordination and sharing of information, planning, and implementation of joint initiatives and judicial reform.

Remulla said the Review Panel created by the DoJ to re-examine incidents during the government’s anti-illegal drug campaign continues its important work.

He reported that recently, at least seven incidents involving deaths were filed before the courts, for which 25 police officers have been indicted. A total of 302 cases have also been referred by the Review Panel to the National Bureau of Investigation for case build-up.

In addition, Remulla said the PNP conducted its own investigations of 17,500 officers in which 27 were dismissed from service, 18 were demoted and 98 suspended. Criminal charges were also filed.

He said nine additional cases will be filed with the Administrative Order 35 Mechanism that looks into allegations of extra-judicial killings.

Likewise, with the recent discovery of 176 unclaimed and abandoned cadavers of PDLs at the accredited funeral home of NBP, he said he has directed the conduct of an inventory and medico-legal investigation “to determine the causes of their deaths with the end view of making legally accountable those found responsible.”

Remulla stressed that the Marcos administration “does not hesitate to take action when there is compelling evidence to do so.”

He also vowed to “dispel the mistaken notion that there is a ‘culture of impunity'” in the country and said that the denial of justice or any violation of human rights will not be tolerated.”

The UPR is a State-led review process of all 193 UN member states’ implementation of human rights obligations through a constructive dialogue among states and other stakeholders, including national human rights institutions and NGOs. It started in 2007 pursuant to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/251 of 2006.

The Philippines joins 13 other States — Algeria, Bahrain, Brazil, Ecuador, Finland, India, Indonesia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Tunisia and the United Kingdom — as a state under review during the 41st Session of the UPR Working Group scheduled from November 7 to 18.

WITH WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL