No-show Bantag urges DOJ panel to reconsider refusal to inhibit from Lapid-Villamor murder probe

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 25 2023 12:35 AM

MANILA — Suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag skipped the resumption of the Justice department’s probe on the killings of radio commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and alleged middleman Jun Villamor on Tuesday.

Bantag was supposed to file his counter-affidavit to address the murder allegations against him.

Instead, he filed through his lawyer Rocky Thomas Balisong, a motion for reconsideration of the panel’s ruling denying his motion for inhibition.

Balisong explained Bantag had other important matters to attend to and he was not required to attend the probe for the submission of his motion.

NEW GROUND FOR INHIBITION

In his motion for reconsideration, Bantag raised a new ground for DOJ prosecutors to inhibit from handling the probe — his own murder complaint against Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla filed before the Office of the Ombudsman after he had sought the DOJ panel’s inhibition.

Earlier this month, Bantag turned the tables on Remulla, accusing him of masterminding the killings of Lapid and Villamor.

For Bantag, the DOJ’s continued handling of the probe while another murder complaint is pending with the Ombudsman involving the same incident and set of characters — except for the alleged masterminds (Bantag in the DOJ probe and Remulla in the Ombudsman) — will result in an “absurd” situation with possible conflict in the result of the preliminary investigation whether for finding of a probable cause or for dismissal of the case.

“What happens if the DOJ finds probable cause against [Director General] Bantag and the Ombudsman will find probable cause against SOJ Remulla out of the same incident and the same victims? What happens if the DOJ will issue a resolution charging respondent-movant as the mastermind and the Ombudsman will issue a resolution charging Secretary Remulla as the mastermind?” the motion asked.

“So two (2) different masterminds are being charged? It will surely create a crisis between the two (2) agencies,” it said.

The DOJ had ruled 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.”

It acknowledged that while the DOJ and the Ombudsman have concurrent jurisdiction over crimes involving public officers outside the exclusive jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan, a memorandum of agreement between the 2 agencies gives the agency with which a complaint is filed jurisdiction over the complaint to the exclusion of the other.

But Balisong presented a different view on how to resolve the concurrent jurisdiction between the DOJ and the Office of the Ombudsman.

“[W]hat we are saying is [that] since there is an issue of impartiality before the DOJ which was raised by one of the parties, the jurisdiction should be brought to the Office of the Ombudsman whose impartiality has not been questioned. Since they’re telling us that these two agencies have concurrent jurisdiction, so bakit natin ilalagay doon sa isang ahensya na may question sa [kanyang] impartiality na pwede namang ilagay doon sa ahensya na may concurrent jurisdiction whose impartiality has not been questioned?” he explained.

Bantag, in seeking the DOJ panel’s inhibition, accused them of bias and partiality largely due to Remulla’s statements against Bantag.

The DOJ panel rejected the allegations of partiality by pointing out that Remulla does not interfere with the ruling of the DOJ panel.

But Bantag in his motion insisted that the resolution of the investigating panel of prosecutors is appealable to the Office of the Secretary of Justice.

REMULLA REACTION

In a chance interview with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Remulla refused to comment on Bantag’s motion but he asserted, “may jurisdiction din kami.”

MABASA REACTION

Lapid’s brother, veteran journalist Roy Mabasa, already had a hunch even before Tuesday’s probe started that Bantag’s camp might file yet another motion.

“Yun yung worst scenario na ini-expect namin. Motions after motions but at the end of the day, kailangan talagang sumunod siya sa proseso,” he said.

Commenting on Bantag’s motion, Mabasa said the motion was a rehash of the previous motion.

“Wala namang bago eh. I cannot even mention it dahil walang bago. It’s just a mere reiteration of the previous petition na ifinile nila yung motion to transfer at saka yung motion to dismiss. So walang specific na argumento. In fact, yun nga yung cinite namin na wala naman silang nilagay na bago kaya’t kami po ay nag move na for resolution,” he said, adding that the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation joined his motion for the prosecutors to finally resolve the consolidated complaint.

Balisong denied claims the motion they filed is meant to delay the proceedings, insisting his client is willing to file his counter-affidavit but only “before an independent and impartial tribunal.”

The DOJ panel has set the next hearing on January 31, to give time to another complainant, the sister of Villamor, to study Bantag’s motion and decide if she will file a comment.

It took the DOJ panel at least a month to resolve Bantag’s motion for inhibition filed in early December last year, since Bantag asked to respond to the comments of the complainants.

The other respondents meanwhile — former BuCor deputy for security and operations Ricardo Zulueta, who is allegedly Bantag’s co-mastermind, and the Dimaculangan brothers and a certain Orly, who allegedly accompanied self-confessed gunman Joel Escorial when Lapid was killed on October 3 last year — have not yet filed any counter-affidavits and neither have their lawyers entered any appearance.

Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Charlie Guhit, who is part of the panel, explained that Bantag and the other respondents can still submit their counter-affidavits at any time during the pendency of the probe.

Otherwise, their right will be deemed waived.

“It’s up to them whether they will file a counter-affidavit,” he said. “I can only say that under the rules, no submission of a counter-affidavit, we can take it as if they are submitting the case for resolution,” he added.

The consolidated murder raps Bantag is facing, along with Zulueta and several BuCor inmates, stemmed from Lapid’s killing in Las Piñas on October 3 and the subsequent death inside the New Bilibid Prison of Villamor on October 18, hours after he was identified by gunman Escorial as an alleged middleman in Lapid’s killing.

Both Bantag and Zulueta have denied involvement while the inmates have executed affidavits naming Zulueta as the one who allegedly met and ordered them to orchestrate the killings supposedly upon Bantag’s orders.

Zulueta has claimed that drug lords framed him and Bantag as the masterminds of the 2 killings.

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