Aquino dumbfounded as ex-general 'let off hook'

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 20 2010 05:14 PM | Updated as of Dec 21 2010 06:03 PM

MANILA, Philippines - President Benigno Aquino III was left scratching his head after an ex-general accused of stealing nearly $7 million struck a deal to serve a short jail term, an aide said Monday.

Aquino has asked state prosecutors to explain the plea bargain under which Carlos Garcia, who retired from the military in disrepute and in jail, could be let off with time already served, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

"Again, it's a question of, 'Wait a minute, I thought the case against him was strong, so why did we agree to plea-bargain?'" Lacierda told reporters.

Garcia posted bail last week after pleading guilty to lesser charges of bribery and money laundering so he could avoid being tried for "plunder" or massive corruption, punishable by life in jail.

He also agreed to return some of the funds he was accused of stealing, and if the court approves the deal he could avoid going back to prison having already served six years, said the clerk of the graft court handling the case.

Garcia and his family were accused of amassing over P300 million (US$6.8 million) during his term as comptroller of the Armed Forces, in a case which shocked the nation.

The general's crimes came to light after his two sons were stopped by US customs police trying to smuggle $100,000 into the United States in 2003.

Garcia's sons and wife are also detained in the Philippines but there is a pending motion for the charges against them to be dismissed.

Lacierda said the deal struck by a special anti-graft prosecutor with Garcia called for the disgraced ex-officer to return some, but not all, of the allegedly plundered funds to the government.

"I understand the plea bargain was P130 million, but the assets that were allegedly ill-gotten was more than that, more than P300 million, so we are at a loss why they did that."

Lacierda said the ombudsman, which had filed the case against Garcia before Aquino came to power after a presidential election in May, was an independent body which does not have to explain its actions and the president may have limited options if he wanted the deal reversed.

"If she (Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez) doesn't want to explain as she's not required to do so, she could explain to the public why there was a plea bargaining that was struck," Lacierda added.

Aquino won a landslide election victory after pledging to crack down on corruption.

Gutierrez could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.