Delay strategy suspected as Ampatuan lawyers quit
A private prosecutor in the Maguindanao murder trial yesterday denounced the withdrawal from the case of the defense lawyers for the principal suspects, saying it was a strategy to delay the court proceedings now that the prosecution is ready to file the formal offer of evidence next week.
“Because they were not able to derail us from filing our formal offer of evidence, they’ve now withdrawn to delay the proceedings. Without counsel, who will comment on our formal offer and who will introduce evidence for the accused?” said lawyer Harry Roque, who chairs the Center for International Law that represents 15 journalists killed in the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre.
One of the defense lawyers, however, said the Ampatuan clan, many of whose members are the main massacre suspects, had already hired new lawyers before they filed their withdrawal.
Three law firms filed separate withdrawals of appearance in the court on Thursday. Fortun Narvasa & Salazar withdrew as counsel for Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Andal Ampatuan Jr.
Andal Jr., the former mayor of Datu Unsay, the Maguindanao town where the killings occurred, is included in the prosecution’s formal offer of evidence against 28 accused.
To proceed as planned
The other law firms that withdrew were Real Brotarlo & Real Law and Manuel Law Office, which represent several Ampatuan family members.
“The tactic of our adversary is to delay. That explains why there is opposition to our formal offer of evidence. And it certainly explains the withdrawal of the counsel. Now we see commonality of interests,” Roque said.
Private prosecutors Nena Santos and Jesusa Quinsayas, who represent some of the complainants in the murder case, have publicly opposed the prosecution panel’s resting its case against 28 of the 196 accused. They later accused some members of the prosecution panel of having accepted bribe money.
“We will proceed as planned. We will seek justice now,” Roque said.
But defense lawyer Sigfrid Fortun said there was no possibility of the proceedings being delayed as the Ampatuans had engaged a new team of defense lawyers even before he and his colleagues filed their withdrawal.
“What motive does the defense have to delay a case when the accused have been in jail for four long years because of [the] slow completion of prosecution evidence on their bail application?” Fortun said.
Without stating their reasons, Fortun, the counsel for principal suspects Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Andal Ampatuan Jr. and 22 others, withdrew from the case along with lawyers Andres Manuel and Paris Real, informing the Quezon City Regional Trial Court of their decision through separate pleadings.
They are defending the accused in the Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Maguindanao province, where 58 people, including journalists, were killed.
Contacted for comment, staff from the three law firms said the lawyers were not available and were not likely to disclose their reason for withdrawing.
‘Perplexing and suspect’
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said she found the withdrawal of the defense lawyers from the Maguindanao case “very interesting” and “perplexing.”
“I find the timing suspect,” she said, in the face of the worsening conflict between the state and private prosecutors that has led to a bribery probe.
De Lima said the National Bureau of Investigation would continue with its investigation of the alleged bribery of prosecutors even without the participation of Santos, the private prosecutor who first revealed the cracks in the prosecution panel and this week accused some of the members of the panel of being on the take.
“I’m really so curious why [they withdrew]. Right now, there are differences among prosecutors … although I must stress that other private prosecutors fully support the public prosecutors. Now, with this development, why are the defense counsels, including the lead counsel, suddenly withdrawing?” she said.
De Lima said the thought that the move was dilatory had also crossed her mind.
“Maybe you can piece it together. I really don’t know. I do not expect that they will cite a reason because lawyers do that, that’s their prerogative. They can get out of a case for whatever reason or even without a reason,” De Lima said.
The prosecution is preparing to rest its case against Andal Jr. and 27 others of the total 196 accused as part of a “first-in, first-out” strategy for a speedier resolution of the case, a move which Santos and Quinsayas loudly opposed.
State prosecutors and even private prosecutor Roque have defended the legal strategy as a means to expedite the proceedings and pave the way for a partial promulgation before the end of President Aquino’s term.
Santos earlier this week released a notebook supposedly containing a list of prosecutors in the Maguindanao massacre case alleged to have taken bribes, among them Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III, the official supervising the prosecution panel, private lawyer Roque and former prosecution panel chief Richard Anthony Fadullon, among others.
The three have denied the charges.
2 incidents linked?
De Lima said she would analyze the latest developments in the case and how the two incidents—the infighting in the prosecution panel and the defense lawyers’ resignation—could be possibly linked.
“I’ve been analyzing things for the past few days, and with this development, that makes me think even more,” De Lima said.
She said the NBI would summon journalist Ces Drilon of the ABS-CBN network who first broke the story about the bribe list.
“She was the one who reported that, and she claims to have seen the alleged notebook and the alleged names,” De Lima said.
‘Absurd and incredible’
Fadullon, meanwhile, denounced Santos for releasing the list and ABS-CBN for reporting on it “without verification.” He strongly denied the bribery claim, adding that the others named on the supposed list were “contemplating” legal action against those who released it.
“[It’s] very irresponsible, very unprofessional because we are being made to answer a list, and the source has not been identified,” said Fadullon, who resigned from the prosecution panel in March 2011 over differences with Santos.
He called the list “absurd, unbelievable and incredible,” and challenged Santos to release not just a part of the list but its entirety.
“Who will we challenge? Who will we cross-examine? The notebook? I am forced to fight a notebook now because somebody says it comes from a credible source. I think it’s crazy,” Fadullon said.
Fadullon said ABS-CBN called him to get his side, but “this does not make it right to divulge the list.”
“It becomes doubly irresponsible when the one who reports it does not take time to validate the information. That’s what I call irresponsible journalism. Sad to say, people will do things just to come up with a scoop, not thinking about the reputation that they would tarnish,” he said.
NBI starts probe
The NBI yesterday said it had started its probe of the allegations of bribery in the Maguindanao massacre case and would invite those who were linked to the alleged payoffs.
NBI Director Virgilio Mendez said the orders of De Lima were to “ferret out the truth regarding the allegations of bribery” and “for the truth to come out regardless of who is involved.”
A five-man team headed by Assistant Regional Director Raquel Angeles has started collating the evidence, he said. The team has been given a deadline of 30 days.
“We are moving fast, we will also request copies of media interviews with the personalities involved in the supposed bribery,” Mendez said.
Among those to be invited by the NBI team are Baraan, the supervising undersecretary of the prosecution team, the members of the 11-person prosecution team, private prosecutor Roque and Lakmodin Saliao, a primary witness of the government against the Ampatuans.
Defense lawyers also invited
Also to be invited are the former and current defense lawyers of the Ampatuans.
Mendez said Drilon, who reported on the notebook containing information about the bribery, would also be invited.
“We want to see the notebook, its contents and origin,” he said.
He said NBI investigators would talk to Santos, who has refused to participate in the probe, and ask her to cooperate with the investigation.
“We all want to know the truth here. We may be also under the DOJ (Department of Justice), but we promise the public that we will come up with a fair and just investigation guided by principles of the NBI,” Mendez said. With a report from Nancy C. Carvajal
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