MANILA (3rd UPDATE) - Justice Sec. Leila De Lima has expressed shock at the granting of bail to former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos by the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 112 on electoral sabotage raps.
In a 5-page order released today, Branch 112 Judge Jesus Mupas granted Abalos' application for bail in connection with charges he was behind wide-scale cheating in the 2007 midterm polls in North Cotabato in favor of the senatorial bets of the Arroyo administration.
Mupas placed Abalos' bail at P1 million or P500,000 for each of the 2 counts slapped against the latter.
The order stated that there was no "strong evidence of guilt" against the former poll body chief.
"The prosecution was not able to establish with clarity the strong evidence of guilt of accused Abalos thus leaving the court in doubt as to whether or not said accused should be admitted to bail or his provisional liberty. Hence, in further addressing the issue at hand, the court cannot help but take into consideration the advance age and present health condition of the accused, in so doing, it finds it necessary to render justice with compassion in line with the ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of DeLa Rama v. Peoples Court G.R. L-982 (October 2, 1946) wherein it was held that where the continued confinement of the accused who were ill would be injurious to their health or endanger their lives, their admission to bail cannot be refused," the ruling read.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is prosecuting Abalos, along with the lead prosecuting agency, the Comelec.
De Lima expressed awe at how Mupas could have decided the case when the Comelec submitted its memorandum against Abalos' bail just yesterday. She said the ruling was "premature."
"Very surprising, if not shocking... Hindi ba after a hearing the judge would require the parties to submit their respective memorandum to elaborate on their respective position? Kahapon nag-file ang Comelec, binanggit yan ng prosecutors natin. So bakit mayroon agad resolution as of today?" De Lima said.
"Ano yun, he was able to read and study the memorandum overnight and then come up with a resolution overight? Unless dati nang prepared ang mga resolution na yan," she added.
De Lima also pointed out that the testimony of accused-turned-state witness Yogie Martirizar, 2007 North Cotabato Provincial Election Supervisor (PES), against Abalos was "very strong."
"Very strong ang testimony niya (Martirizar) na itinuturo si Abalos as a major player sa pagmanipula ng resulta ng [North] Cotabato. Detalyado ang testimony dyan ni Martirizar, you can check the transcripts [of stenographic notes] na itinuturo talaga siya (Abalos)," she said.
The country is fortunate, De Lima said, that people like Martirizar are even coming forward to divulge massive cheating in the senatorial polls. Martirizar's testimony was sufficient for bail hearing purposes, she added.
"Sinuswerte na nga tayo na may nagsasabi based on a personal knowledge, bakit naghahanap pa ng corroborative [witnesses]? And this is just a bail hearing," she pointed out.
'Case not yet lost'
In spite of the set back, De Lima is confident that the cases against Abalos will be proven in the course of the trial.
Abalos was also granted bail by the Pasay City RTC Branch 117 earlier on 11 counts of electoral sabotage for alleged fraud in the 2007 midterm polls, this time, in the province of South Cotabato. He posted bail at P2.2 million for those charges.
However, Abalos may not leave the country since the Pasay trial courts had issued hold departure orders against him.
Electoral sabotage is a non-bailable offense and carries a penalty of life imprisonment. However, bail may be granted to a person accused of the charge in the absence of sufficient evidence during the bail hearings.
The DOJ believes filing a motion for reconsideration (MR) on the bail grant may prove futile.
"Kapag ganyan kasi, based on experience, parang malabo na ang MR kasi immediately executory ang pag-release; the moment mag-bail yan, I'm willing to bet baka ready na ang mga pang-bail," De Lima said.
Abalos camp hails RTC ruling
Atty. Abraham Espejo, who is representing Abalos before RTC Branch 112, along with former Justice Sec. Artemio Tuquero, lauded the trial court's ruling.
In a statement, Espejo said Mupas stood his ground in spite of mounting pressure to pin down his client.
"We are extremely thankful to the Honorable Judge for not giving in to pressure and instead, relied solely on the merits of the case and on the overwhelming evidence that we have presented," Espejo said.
Seventy-seven-year old Abalos' temporary liberty is a relief both to his family and legal team who all point out that he is innocent of the charges.
"The grant of Chairman Abalos' freedom is not a day too soon. He had been punished and left to rot in jail for more than 8 months on the basis of false charges that were supported by flimsy evidence. We pity the Chairman. It is cruel to jail an old man for something that he did not do," Espejo said.
"Harassment suits" such as those against Abalos "have no place in a free and democratic state," he added.