Malacañang can’t stop suspects in the P10-billion pork barrel scam from leaving the country.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte explained in a radio interview that the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the Department of Justice’s power to stop persons on its “watchlist” from leaving the country after this was questioned in court by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2011.
“The watchlist power of the DOJ has been temporarily suspended because of the TRO of the Supreme Court,” Valte said, adding that in the absence of formal charges in the Sandiganbayan, the government cannot stop the suspects from boarding flights out of the country. At the moment, only the courts can issue a hold-departure order (HDO).
“We really don’t have a basis anymore to stop (them), short of committing criminal violations (if we insist on issuing the watchlist order),” said Valte, responding to critics who want the suspects stopped from fleeing the country.
The case against the suspects is still in its preliminary stages. The National Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint last Monday against the respondents in the Office of the Ombudsman, which has yet to determine whether or not to elevate the case to the Sandiganbayan antigraft court.
In October 2011, the secretary of justice prevented the former president and her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, from leaving the country, citing the DOJ’s administrative power to stop the departure of people on its watchlist. The DOJ later filed an electoral sabotage case against Arroyo.
“The watchlist power of the DOJ… was still active (at the time). It hadn’t been (set aside) by a TRO,” Valte said.
The following month, as legal tussles began, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of watchlist orders by the DOJ.
Some 35 people linked to the pork barrel scam have been included in what the Bureau of Immigration (BI) now calls a “lookout list.” The lookout list is not a hold-departure order. Its purpose is only for immigration agents to alert agencies concerned that a person on the list is about to leave the country, Valte said.
Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. were not included in the lookout list “out of courtesy toward members of a coequal branch of government,” said BI Officer in Charge Siegfred Mison.
Six people linked to the pork barrel scam have left the country, namely, Agusan del Sur Rep. Rodolfo Plaza, Enrile’s former chief of staff Jessica Lucila Reyes, Ruby Tuason, a representative of Enrile and Estrada; former Technology Research Center (TRC) Director General Antonio Ortiz and former TRC Deputy Director General Dennis Cunanan. Nemesio Pablo Jr., head of the Agri and Economic Program for Farmers Foundation Inc. reportedly left the country in May 2010.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had said the government could not compel those implicated in the scam to return to the country until criminal complaints were filed against them in court.
The Inquirer learned on Saturday that the BI was verifying reports that Reyes had returned to the country. There were unconfirmed reports she chartered a flight from Macau to Cagayan, Enrile’s province, sources said.