MANILA (UPDATED) - Malacañang on Tuesday assured the public that the cases of self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa and alleged drug triad boss Peter Lim would still be reviewed after the Department of Justice (DOJ) cleared them of drug charges.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said while the government “understands the sentiments and the frustration of the public over the dismissal” of the charges, this is “far from being final.”
“Hindi pa po tapos ang ‘boxing’ laban kay Peter Lim at dito kay Kerwin Espinosa. Rerepasuhin pa po ‘yan ng Kalihim ng Department of Justice, at sisiguraduhin na tama ang naging naunang desisyon ng ating mga public prosecutors,” Roque said in a news conference in Malacañang.
“Hindi pa tapos ang usaping ito. Hindi puwede na ang isang malaking isda ay hindi mapaparusahan kung may malaking ebidensya.”
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier tagged Peter Lim as the Visayan member of the drug triad in the Philippines. The two other alleged drug bigwigs the President identified were Peter Co and Herbert Colangco, who are both behind bars in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
It was later revealed that Duterte is Lim’s wedding co-sponsor (kumpadre). Lim then met with Duterte in Davao City in July 2016, weeks into his term.
Espinosa, meanwhile, testified before a Senate hearing that he was earning P50 million yearly in the illegal drug trade while giving out P20 million in protection money to individuals linked to his illegal drug network.
He told senators he gave at least P3 million to the police official who led the raid that led to the killing of his father, former Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr.
LACK OF EVIDENCE
According to a Dec. 20, 2017 resolution approved by acting Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan Jr. and made public only on Monday, the DOJ cleared Espinosa, Lim and 20 others of drug charges due to lack of evidence.
"Our law enforcement agencies shall gather more concrete and competent evidence proving that respondents and other individuals are indeed involved in illegal drug activities," the DOJ resolution read.
Police can file charges again but they have to make sure that these are backed by more evidence and corroborated testimonies, the DOJ said.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the decision can still be reviewed either through a "a motion for reconsideration, or ultimately, by way of automatic review" of his office.
"The dismissal is a slight bump on the war against drugs, it is likewise a wake up [call] to all concerned that our efforts, from apprehension to resolution to conviction must be concerted and thorough," Aguirre said in a statement.
"Suffice it to say that the current status of the case against the respondents Peter Lim et al. does not mean that it is a final exoneration of their respective criminal liabilities," he said.
Roque, meanwhile, said despite the development, Duterte remains serious in his war on drugs.
“If, however, it is necessary to file additional evidence, we will prompt police authorities to do so. We will not allow a big fish to go away if there’s evidence to go after him,” Roque said.
In a tweet, Roque also revealed that it was decided during the police-military joint conference led by Duterte on Tuesday that the Philippine National Police would appeal the dismissal.
'KAPAG MAHIRAP...PATAY AGAD'
The dismissal of the drug charges against Lim and Espinosa has been met with disappointment by senators who probed Espinosa’s alleged involvement in the narcotics trade.
"It's terrible, it's terrible. Lahat kami sa Senado downhearted dahil paano naman maabsuwelto 'yan e inamin na nga e," Sen. Richard Gordon told dzMM.
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a fierce Duterte critic, said the DOJ’s decision on Lim and Espinosa’s cases show that the government’s war on drugs is a "fake" one.
“Kapag mahirap, walang tanong-tanong, patay agad. Kapag drug lords at kumpare pa ni Duterte, may due process na, abswelto pa sa kaso,” Trillanes said in a statement.
Gordon suspects Espinosa was cleared of drug charges as part of a "strategy" as the son of the slain Leyte town mayor had implicated detained Sen. Leila de Lima in his drug operations.
"Maaaring may strategy sila dahil ang tinuro niya si ano e, si De Lima, na kasama niya. So maaaring 'yun. Pero hindi dapat siya maabsuwelto sa pagpasok niya ng malalaking droga," said Gordon.
De Lima, a critic of the President, has been detained since February 2017, after being linked to the illegal drug trade by convicted drug lords. Espinosa claimed he had given drug money to the senator during her time as justice secretary under the previous administration.