Guevarra calls appointment “the hand of God at work”
MANILA — After serving in 2 administrations, outgoing Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra is not leaving the government just yet.
The team of President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. announced on Friday that Guevarra accepted his nomination as Solicitor-General-designate in the new administration — giving him the opportunity to serve under 3 presidents.
Acknowledging his appointment, Guevarra revealed to reporters Friday he was previously offered both the justice secretary and solicitor general positions.
“Ten years ago I was offered both the SOJ and OSG positions. Maybe the time wasn’t ripe then. Now everything’s coming back to me. It’s the hand of God at work. Ecclesiastes,” he said.
“The SOJ is very high-profile and has more administrative work, supervising many attached agencies. The SolGen position, I thought, better suited me. Because I had been in law firm practice for 25 years,” he added.
THREE ADMINISTRATIONS, DIFFERENT POSITIONS
Guevarra, 68, first served as a member of the Truth Commission established by the late President Benigno Aquino III in 2010, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2011.
He rejoined the PNoy administration as deputy executive secretary for legal affairs in May 2015 and as a commissioner of the Philippine Competition Commission in February 2016.
He was part of the Philippine legal team in the arbitration case the country filed against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. This led to the arbitral award in favor of the Manila over the West Philippine Sea.
In June 2016, he joined the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte as senior deputy executive secretary before being appointed justice secretary in April 2018.
Guevarra, whose academic credentials included graduating with honors in both his political science and law degrees at the Ateneo, also holds a masters degree in economics from the University of the Philippines.
Prior to joining the government, his work experience ranged from stints at the National Economic and Development Authority and the Central Bank to his private law practice as associate at the Ponce Enrile Cayetano Bautista Picazo & Reyes (PECABAR) Law Offices, and his own law firm, Medialdea Ata Bello Guevarra & Suarez offices.
He also taught various law subjects.
GUEVARRA’S PERFORMANCE AS JUSTICE SECRETARY
Guevarra’s appointment to the Department of Justice in April 2018 came on the heels of the resignation of its then head, Vitaliano Aguirre II, who figured in a number of controversies.
These included the DOJ panel of prosecutor’s resolution to dismiss drug charges against Kerwin Espinosa and Peter Lim, Aguirre's involvement in the Bureau of Immigration bribery scandal, and the P6.4-billion shabu shipment that slipped past the Bureau of Customs in 2016.
Guevarra vowed to restore the “dignified and respectable image” of the DOJ when he stepped into office.
But his term was also rocked by its own controversies.
The implementation of the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law became controversial with the reported impending release of convicted rapist and murderer, former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez, having benefited from a 2013 law that expanded the coverage as well as the number of GCTA credits.
The ensuing public uproar forced the DOJ to reexamine the guidelines and come up with new implementing rules and regulations, excluding those convicted of heinous crimes from benefiting from the law.
Sanchez was never released and eventually died in March 2021 while inside the New Bilibid Prison.
Duterte verbally ordered all other inmates released on GCTA credits to return, giving them an ultimatum.
Guevarra later cited 2 Supreme Court cases to justify the re-arrest of inmates released on supposedly erroneous computations of GCTAs.
Throughout his 4-year tenure as justice chief, Guevarra often found himself justifying off-the-cuff remarks of Duterte, especially during the height of the pandemic.
He provided legal justification for arresting quarantine violators at the start of the pandemic, only to clarify a year later than instead of arrests and collecting fines, the government should instead impose community service.
In the meantime, hundreds have been arrested for allegedly violating health protocols but some of the cases were junked in court due to improper reliance on a law requiring notification of diseases.
The policy soon changed when President Duterte again ordered the arrest of those who improperly wear face masks.
The DOJ said arrests could be made on the basis of ordinances requiring the use of masks and setting quarantine restrictions against mass gatherings.
DISAGREED WITH DUTERTE
But there were also instances when Guevarra disagreed with Duterte.
Following a threat of arrest from the President for those who refuse to get vaccinated, Guevarra said there was no law requiring vaccination.
He also clarified that the immigration personnel who figured in the “pastillas” bribery scandal were still with the bureau despite Duterte’s claim they had all been fired.
And in the wake of the President’s claim that not all drug war records can be released due to national security concerns, Guevarra said that deaths due to the crackdown were more criminal in nature than a national security concern. He acknowledged an April 2018 Supreme Court resolution that declared that drug war documents “do not involve state secrets affecting national security.”
In an online forum Wednesday, Guevarra said the most difficult issue he had to deal with was the President’s war on drugs.
“Ang pinaka-sensitive I think is the fight against illegal drugs, where the DOJ had to take important steps to make accountable the law enforcement agents who were directly instructed by the President to go all out against illegal drugs so palagay ko ‘yan ang pinaka-significant na point of stress between myself as SOJ and the President,” he told reporters.
(I think that was the most significant point of stress between myself as SOJ and the President.)
“But in fairness to the President, he understands where the SOJ is coming from, kaya noong magsalita sya sa (so when he addressed the) UN General Assembly, he in fact included in his statement that he has in fact directed the DOJ and the PNP to do a general review of the conduct of the campaign against illegal drugs. In effect, he, kumbaga, agreed with the view na hindi perfect, na mayroong mga deficiencies, may abuses in the conduct of the war against illegal drugs,” he added.
(In effect, he agreed with the view that it was not perfect, there were deficiencies and abuses in the conduct of the drug war.)
It was Guevarra’s speech before the UN Human Rights Council in June 2020 disclosing that Philippine authorities have started reviewing drug war cases that is widely perceived to have led the UNHRC to vote in favor of creating a joint human rights program between the Philippines and the UN, instead of launching an international probe into drug war killings.
More than 6,000 have been killed in drug operations although human rights groups say as many as 30,000 may have been killed, including those killed by vigilantes and unknown killers.
In a rare admission, Guevarra told the UNHRC in February last year that police protocols were not followed in drug operations and some weapons were not examined, although he insisted the justice system was working.
He also disclosed a matrix of 52 cases reviewed by the DOJ, although the 2 drug war review reports were never released to the public.
A big issue in the drug war were the drug charges against detained Sen. Leila de Lima.
One case has already been dismissed and several witnesses have recanted their allegations against the senator, but Guevarra stood by the prosecution panel’s recommendation to continue prosecuting the cases, drawing a sharp rebuke from De Lima.
The senator accused Guevarra of doing a Pontius Pilate.
"Up to the end of his term, Sec. Guevarra is minded to stand by the lies and manufactured evidence of the Duterte government, not wanting to displease his principal. He is, after all, (President Rodrigo) Duterte’s alter ego," de Lima said in a statement.
Guevarra has not yet responded to the statement but he insisted Duterte’s drug war was “overall very successful.”
“Napakarami na drug syndicates na na-prosecute because of his campaign. Nakita naman natin nabawasan talaga sa street level, makikita naman visible ang reduction, incidents ng drug pushing, etc. And I think you will agree that people now feel a bit safer being on the streets, even at night kasi nawala na incidents na high on drugs loitering around. So I think to that extent successful naman. Fairly successful ang campaign,” he reasoned.
(Many drug syndicates were prosecuted. We saw a reduction in the street level, when it comes to incidents of drug pushing... There are no longer incidents of people who are high on drugs loitering around... The campaign was fairly successful.)
“But then may excesses na nangyayari, that issue has been brought to the attention of even international organizations like the UN Human Rights Council so kaya nga ang DOJ nag-lead ng isang campaign para yun mga abuses sa enforcement ng implementation ng ating campaign against illegal drugs ma-address din naman,” he added.
(But then, excesses occurred... and that is why the DOJ led a campaign so that those abuses in the implementation of our campaign could be addressed.)
Guevarra also stressed domestic accountability mechanisms were working and there was no need for the International Criminal Court to step in.
The ICC last year launched a preliminary investigation into the drug war killings in the Philippines. It suspended the probe on the request of Manila, which cited its own inquiries.
Aside from disagreeing with Duterte, Guevarra differed from Solicitor General Jose Calida’s position seeking the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast operations. He also recently spoke out against red-tagging by members of the anti-insurgency body, National Task to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
Despite having different positions, Guevarra said Duterte never interfered in the conduct of his job.
“In fairness to him, I think he understood it and he never called my attention. He never told me, 'Secretary Guevarra, please go slow d'yan sa pag-imbestiga mo sa police officers.' He never said something like that to me, called my attention and so forth and so on, he just let me do what I thought was the proper thing to do,” he said.
(He never told me, 'Secretary Guevarra, please go slow in investigating police officers.')
When he took leadership of the DOJ, Guevarra said Duterte in a 15-minute conversation told him, "I will not interfere in the conduct of your job as justice secretary, just do what you think is right."
“I followed that, sometimes to the point na hindi consistent ang aming actions (that our actions were inconsistent), but he never called my attention because he trusted that what I’m doing was, in my own assessment, in accordance to what is right,” he said.
As Solicitor General, Guevarra will oversee the prosecution of cases for the recovery of ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses.
A recent issue that came out of the election is the P203-billion estate taxes and penalties due from the Marcoses due to unpaid estate taxes.
“All of these are now in the courts. I intend to stick to the role of the OSG as the defender of the republic and tribune of the people,” Guevarra said.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers President Edre Olalia said Guevarra’s appointment was “quite a surprise.”
“It is a formidable task that will have issues and choices between the devil and the deep blue sea. But we hope the new SolGen will anyway recoup the trust, professionalism & integrity that was compromised by perceived political partisanship and weaponization of the law,” he said.
“While we have principled disagreements with the outgoing SOJ on certain fundamental issues, he appears to be a more decent and reasonable public official who is by and large respected for trying to be faithful to the ‘rule of law’ and due process despite or because of his position. We hope he will not only truly be a Tribune of the People but also the conscience of the administration especially on matters of human rights and good governance,” he said.
During his term, Guevarra opened a probe into some of the killings of activists on Bloody Sunday.
BYE SC, HELLO OSG
Long touted as a strong candidate for Supreme Court justice, Guevarra declined nominations to join the high court to focus instead on the DOJ.
“I really would have considered moving or applying sa SC, sa Judiciary. Pero komo meron tayong national emergency, we are in the midst of the pandemic. I just felt na being in the Executive department which has to deal with a national crisis, like this pandemic, would be more meaningful as far as the SOJ is concerned,” he said in an online interview on Wednesday.
“Kasi kailangan sa mga actions na emergency measures to take, to address the pandemic na nandun someone like the justice secretary who would be able to tell the IATF whether yung measures na gusto nila gawin ay in accordance with law or are in excess of what the law allows and so forth... 'Yun circumstance na yun really dictated my decision to stick it out with the Executive department because of the emergency,” he added.
(Emergency measures were necessary to address the pandemic, so there should be someone like the justice secretary who would be able to tell the IATF whether the measures they wanted were in accordance with the law.)
Reflecting on his stint at the DOJ, Guevarra said he had no regrets.
“I'm happy with what I have done here,” he said.
"I hope the positive things we have done in the past 4 years...would continue in the tenure of the incoming justice secretary,” he added.