3 Sandiganbayan justices’ bid to quit Jinggoy Estrada case junked
MANILA, Philippines–Finish what you have started.
The Sandiganbayan on Wednesday turned down the request of three of their colleagues to back out of the plunder and graft cases of detained Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, saying the reasons the three raised were “not compelling” to justify their inhibition.
Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, however, declined to disclose the reasons raised by the Fifth Division justices during their closed-door full court meeting, which lasted over an hour.
“They actually explained their personal reasons. But they requested us not to discuss it with (the media). Let’s just respect their request for it to remain with us. I hope you will respect it,” Tang said.
In a special en banc session, the magistrates of the antigraft court “advised” the three members of the Fifth Division to stay put and carry on with the hearing of Estrada’s bail petition, which started in July.
Tang said the decision of the three justices had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s resolution allowing the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to look into the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of the members of the special court.
Tang also flatly denied reports that Malacañang was exerting pressure on the members of the Fifth Division—Associate Justice Roland Jurado (chair) and Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Estoesta—to throw out Estrada’s petition.
“I can assure you that it has nothing to do with the (issue about our) SALN or the supposed conduct of investigation concerning the bank accounts of the justices by the AMLC (Anti-Money Laundering Council),” Tang said in a news briefing.
“That’s not true. The reported Malacañang pressure is not also true. There’s no such pressure,” she said.
The presiding justice maintained that the members of the antigraft court had made available their SALNs to the public even before the cases pertaining to the P10-billion pork barrel scam were filed.
Besides Estrada, two other senators—Juan Ponce Enrile and Bong Revilla—are facing plunder charges in the Sandiganbayan in connection with the tens of millions of pesos from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) that they allegedly pocketed in connivance with businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
Tang noted that a media company had gotten hold of the SALN documents after its request was granted by the high tribunal.
“I don’t think one should [be] fear[ful] if he or she did nothing wrong. So, it’s OK,” Tang said.
In a single-page letter they sent to Tang on Monday, Jurado, Gesmundo and Estoesta expressed their intention to withdraw from Estrada’s case over “personal reasons,” without elaborating.
However, a court insider told the Inquirer that the justices’ decision was prompted by “pressure” from the public and the “higher authorities” for them to rebuff Estrada’s attempt to secure his temporary freedom.
The source, who agreed to talk if he would not be named, said the high court’s approval of the BIR request to scrutinize the Sandiganbayan justices’ SALN was also a factor in their sudden change of heart.
“Since the issue of the pork barrel scam broke out in the media, the public perception is that all the personalities implicated in the controversy should be convicted,” the source told the Inquirer.
“We know what happened to the known critics of the government and those allied with former President (Gloria Macapagal) Arroyo. They were harassed by the BIR by threatening to file tax evasion cases against them.”
But Tang emphasized that none of the three justices mentioned that somebody had tried to influence them, saying each of them justified their own reasons for wanting to withdraw from Estrada’s case.
Asked if Gesmundo, Jurado and Estoesta cited similar circumstances, Tang said their reasons were almost the same “but in varying degrees.”
“The chair (Jurado) has, I think, a more serious concern… I wish I could tell you, but I’m bound by my undertaking not to disclose it,” said the presiding justice.
Request for guidance
Tang also explained that the three justices did not actually quit from handling Estrada’s case and that they merely asked for guidance from the court en banc.
Said Tang: “There is a difference between the two because if they voluntarily inhibited, neither the court en banc nor the presiding justice has the power to deny (their inhibition). But since their letter merely requested recusal, we treated it as a request for advice from the en banc.”
In deciding not to grant their colleagues’ request, she said the 11 justices all agreed that it would be best for them “not to pursue the request for inhibition and to continue handling the case.”
“We feel that this is one of the important cases being handled by the court and the justices should really continue handling it because many things have happened (since) the filing of the case,” she added.
Asked if the justices’ aborted plan to bow out of Estrada’s case may affect their eventual ruling, Tang said: “Personally, I don’t think there is any adverse or significant impact. I believe in the three members of (the Fifth Division) and I believe that they can do their job well.”
She expressed confidence that the issue would not have any negative effect on the court’s credibility.
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