MALACAÑANG on Friday defended Justice Secretary Leila de Lima against criticism that she had prejudged the investigation of the killing of 13 people in a supposed shootout between government security forces and a group of alleged criminals in Atimonan, Quezon province, on Jan. 6.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also rejected insinuations that the Palace authorized De Lima to preempt the outcome of the investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
De Lima herself swatted aside talk of prejudgment, saying the NBI is an agency under the Department of Justice (DOJ) and it is her prerogative to supervise the activities of the department’s subagencies.
De Lima on Thursday told reporters that going by the testimony of two witnesses on the spot, what happened at the joint police-military checkpoint in Atimonan was “definitely not a shootout.”
Preempting NBI report
The investigation is going on, but Chief Supt. James Melad, the sacked chief of the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) police, said De Lima appeared to have preempted the results by declaring on Thursday, after a reenactment of the events of Jan. 6 in Atimonan, that what happened was “definitely not a shootout.”
“I subjected myself to the investigation of the NBI thinking and hoping that every angle, side and point of view on what really happened will be given weight,” Melad said. “I have high [regard for] the justice secretary and I am hoping [that] what she said is not an outright conclusion.”
“That is not an issue anymore,” De Lima said. “I don’t think that should be an issue.”
She said her critics, Supt. Hansel Marantan, leader of the police team at the checkpoint who has been suspended, and the lawyer of the Army soldiers who had backed up the policemen, should just answer questions about the killings.
“If I were them, instead of raising various issues, they should just answer the main issue at hand, the one about the incident,” De Lima said.
“They should face it and answer it, not divert it by questioning the actuations of the secretary of justice. That style is an old tactic,” she said.
“I don’t think the secretary is preempting the investigation,” Valte said at a briefing for reporters in Malacañang. “The [reporters who] were there [wanted] details [for their reports],” she said.
Valte said the Palace saw nothing wrong about De Lima’s presence at the reenactment of the Jan. 6 shootings in Atimonan.
“[W]e trust that Secretary De Lima is also on hand to provide the proper guidance to the investigation,” Valte added.
De Lima said she was just answering questions from reporters who wanted to know after the reenactment what she thought happened at the checkpoint.
What do you call it?
“I was asked by the media what’s on my mind. I said if you observed closely, you’ll know what happened. It could be a rubout, ambush or massacre. We will look for a better term and we will put it in the NBI report,” she said.
She said Marantan’s side of the story was crucial because he was the team leader and was one of the three police officers who prepared the case operational plan (coplan). He was also the only one of the three who was at the checkpoint.
“Did he have any motive or is it just like that [as narrated]?” De Lima said.
She said the NBI had arrived at several theories and was just validating them.
De Lima said she had instructed the NBI to work double time and finish its report, as President Aquino expected it by the middle of next week at the latest.
To trace Siman’s moves
De Lima said the investigators were “backtracking” to trace the movements of Victor “Vic” Siman, the target of the police operation, on Jan. 6. Establishing his whereabouts and his contacts before getting to Atimonan in the afternoon of that day is important to determining the motive for the attack on him, De Lima said.
“Since our findings, based on eyewitness accounts, was that there was really no shootout, then what was that mission all about? Was that operation specifically conducted to liquidate those elements?” she said.
“If [the people who were killed] had [criminal] records, assuming that they are part of a syndicate whether engaged in illegal numbers game or guns for hire, there was a process for it,” she said.
“If there’s a basis for the accusations, they should get a warrant and arrest them. Now if the situation calls for it, they can effect warrantless arrest, but by all means conduct it not like that. We are a government governed by laws, a civilized society, not the Wild, Wild West where they can just neutralize anybody they want to,” she said.
De Lima said just because the other side was the first to open fire did not mean that the law enforcers could fire back indiscriminately. With a report from Arlyn dela Cruz