The hopes of the “Abadilla 5,” in prison since 1996, that they would be home for Christmas have been dashed.
President Benigno Aquino III did not act favorably on the recommendation of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to grant executive clemency to the five convicted killers of Lt. Col. Rolando Abadilla, an intelligence chief of the Philippine Constabulary who gained notoriety as an alleged torturer of political prisoners during martial law.
“I’m hoping that it would be acted upon in time for Christmas. I think there’s a chance. But of course that’s the prerogative of the President,” De Lima said in an interview at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City almost two weeks ago.
Those who got a Christmas gift from President Aquino in the form of executive clemency were eight elderly inmates—seven men and one woman.
Six of the inmates were granted conditional pardon: Agustin Caballero, 71; Nicanor Medel, 72; Clarita Miranda, 71; Pablito Estrada, 73; Felipe Gahit Sr., 72; and Venerando Generalao, 83.
The pardons were signed by Mr. Aquino on Dec. 21 and the convicts were immediately released the next day, De Lima said on Friday.
Two inmates had their original sentences commuted: Aurelio Amolong, 85, and Celerino Sanchez, 82. They were deemed to have served the minimum of their prison terms and may apply for parole.
“This humanitarian act on the part of the President is a signal that the recognition of the principle of restorative justice prevails in our justice system. We recognize that crimes must be punished.
“But, at the same time, we also acknowledge that true justice means that those who have recognized and suffered for their mistakes, and who have shown not just their remorse but also their sincerity in becoming better citizens and members of the communities, deserve to be given a second chance,” De Lima said.
Family, love, forgiveness
“These inmates, furthermore, are in the twilight years of their lives. We don’t only wish to give these inmates the gift of freedom, but also to give them and their loved ones the opportunity to spend this period of time together as a family. After all, that is what Christmas is about to us Filipinos: Family, love and forgiveness,” she added.
The Department of Justice’s Board of Pardons and Parole recommended the commutation of the sentences of the Abadilla 5—Lenido Lumanog, Cesar Fortuna, Joel de Jesus, Rameses de Jesus and Augusto Santos—in November 2011, but De Lima pushed for conditional pardon instead.
In a commutation of sentence, a convict has to acknowledge guilt. No such requirement is called for in a conditional pardon, but it could be revoked if the convict commits another crime.
Lack of reasonable doubt
In an earlier interview, she explained the main reason for her recommendation of executive clemency to the President. “To me there’s a moral certainty about the lack of reasonable doubt,” the justice secretary said.
De Lima noted that some justices dissented in the Supreme Court decision upholding the conviction of the Abadilla 5.
She also said that when she chaired the Commission on Human Rights, questions about the credibility of the witness nagged her.
The Supreme Court affirmed in February 2011 the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the conviction of Lumanog, Fortuna, Santos and Joel de Jesus and Rameses de Jesus by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.
The five insisted they were innocent and accused their police captors of torturing them into admitting the crime.
Abadilla was killed while his car was stopped in traffic on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City on June 13, 1996.
The communist-led hit squad Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) claimed responsibility for the killing. As proof of the deed, they turned in Abadilla’s watch to “running priest” Robert Reyes.
The pardoned convicts, meanwhile, were required to report to their parole and probation officers.
They are barred from changing their addresses without the consent of the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP). They must also permit the local police and BPP officials to visit them and they must truthfully answer the authorities’ questions.
The terms of the pardon state that the convicts shall indulge in no injurious or vicious habits, shall avoid places or persons of disreputable or harmful character, and shall not commit any crime and conduct themselves in an orderly manner.
“The moment they violate these conditions, they will be sent back to prison,” De Lima said.
She said the Bureau of Corrections “temporarily deferred” the release of one of the inmates as the agency was awaiting the schedule of a ship that would bring him to his destination.
Philippine Presidents traditionally grant pardons and commutations during Christmas, Easter and other important occasions.