MANILA — A justice department panel has denied due to "lack of merit" suspended prisons chief Gerald Bantag's bid for prosecutors to recuse from the probe on the killings of broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and alleged middleman Jun Villamor.
In an order dated Jan. 17, 2023, the DOJ panel headed by Deputy State Prosecutor Olivia Laroza-Torrevillas junked Bantag’s motion for inhibition and instead ordered him and other respondents to submit their counter-affidavits during the next hearing set on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 2 pm.
Bantag had accused the panel of prosecutors and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla of impartiality and claimed that the Ombudsman had jurisdiction over his case.
But the DOJ panel insisted it has jurisdiction over the murder raps against Bantag because the offenses charged “are not intimately connected with the mandate or official functions of his office.”
Explaining the delineation of jurisdictions, the panel said the Office of the Ombudsman would have had exclusive jurisdiction over the case if the offenses charged were done in relation to his office.
Also clear from the circumstances, the panel said, is that it does not involve graft which is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Sandigabayan over which the Ombudsman has primary jurisdiction.
“The Panel having acquired jurisdiction, it shall continue until theses cases are terminated,” it said.
The DOJ prosecutors said the allegation of bias and partiality against them is based on the wrong premise that the justice secretary takes part in the preliminary investigation.
They pointed out that only the prosecutor general approves resolutions of preliminary investigations and the justice secretary is not involved, unlike in petitions for review which are filed directly before the justice secretary’s office.
The DOJ panel said the allegations are “speculative,” saying they never made any statements against any party that would show a “scintilla of bias and partiality.”
Bantag had accused Remulla of prejudging the murder complaints because of his statements pointing to Bantag as the supposed “Cinderella man” criticized by Lapid on his radio program “Lapid Fire.”
It was Remulla who claimed that Bantag was livid when he allegedly found out Lapid had taken photos and videos of his house and cars in Laguna.
Bantag also took issue with Remulla’s challenge for Bantag to surrender.
In response, Bantag filed murder, libel and administrative raps against Remulla before the Office of the Ombudsman accusing him of masterminding the Lapid-Villamor killings.
But for the DOJ panel, Remulla’s statements were made as the head of the department overseeing the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor). The killing of Lapid was allegedly planned within the New Bilibid Prison, where Villamor was also killed.
“Being the head of the department, the SOJ has to report and inform the public about what happened or what is happening in the department and its constituent and attached agencies, including the BuCor,” it said.
“There is no violation of respondent Bantag’s right to due process to be heard by an independent and impartial tribunal, as the Panel remains, and will continue to remain, independent and impartial in hearing these cases, more importantly in their resolution,” it added.
Bantag is facing consolidated murder complaints over the killings of Lapid outside his subdivision in Las Piñas on Oct. 3 and of Villamor inside Bilibid on Oct. 18.
A self-confessed gunman, Joel Escorial, admitted to shooting Lapid and pointed to Bantag and his deputy Ricardo Zulueta as the masterminds.
Several Bilibid inmates also executed affidavits regarding Villamor’s killing, who was allegedly suffocated by placing a plastic bag over his head.
Lapid's brother Roy Mabasa said their family hoped that all the accused would face the accusations and evidence against them.
"Tigilan na sana ang paggamit ng ano mang uri ng pang-aantala sa proseso ng mabilis na pag-usad ng kaso. Ang aming pamilya ay di po titigil sa paghahanap ng hustisya para sa aming minamahal na si Ka Percy," he said in a statement.
(We hope that they would stop delaying the quick progress of the case. Our family will not stop seeking justice for our beloved Ka Percy.)