6 pork whistle-blowers seek full immunity
Nearly four years after uncovering an alleged P10-billion pork barrel racket involving some of the biggest names in politics, six whistle-blowers led by Benhur Luy and Ruby Tuason are still seeking full immunity from suit for their role in the diversion of government funds to bogus foundations.
Lawyers of Luy, Tuason, Marina Sula, Merlina Suñas, Mary Arlene Baltazar and Simonette Briones are asking Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales for “full immunity” instead of staggered protection, which has kept them open to inclusion in lawsuits in cases involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam they had exposed.
They also asked that charges of plunder filed by Morales against two of the witnesses—Sula and Tuason—be withdrawn even if these cases involved the plunder of nonpork funds, as these were scams likewise masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
Apparently, Morales and former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had failed to give protection to the witnesses, whose testimony served as the basis for the PDAF cases filed in court, notably against former Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada.
Enrile is out on bail on humanitarian considerations, while Estrada and Revilla, along with Napoles, are under detention as their trial remained bogged down with technicalities.
The case has sparked widespread public outrage and has prompted the Supreme Court to declare the pork barrel system unlawful and those who illegally benefited from the PDAF allocations meant to uplift rural poverty through the past years be prosecuted. Only a handful, however, have been charged in court.
“The anxiety and fear of being forced to face and defend our clients from future charges and cases emanating from PDAF and Napoles-related cases is something that is clearly avoidable. And this can be achieved by granting our clients full immunity that should be properly channeled and dispensed to the different judicial and quasi-judicial bodies so that no further charges against them will be instituted,” Dominic Garen, lawyer of Suñas, said in a letter to Morales dated Jan. 29.
Garen reminded Morales that the witnesses’ lives had changed and that they had been under threat since they disclosed how some of the country’s most powerful people participated in the alleged diversion of PDAF funds, amounting to some P10 billion over a decade to dozens of fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that ended in ghost projects and kickbacks in schemes concocted by Napoles.
The whistle-blowers had requested full immunity as early as June 8, 2016, or a week after President Rodrigo Duterte took office, “for all cases related to the PDAF scam” after they had fully cooperated with authorities, according to lawyer Lourdes Benipayo.
“Their immunity from suit will allow them to be able to speak more candidly and truthfully about the PDAF scam and the people involved in the scam,” Benipayo said.
Benipayo reiterated her request in a letter to Morales on Jan. 31 in which she noted how her clients—Sula, Baltazar and Briones—had agreed to cooperate with authorities with the understanding that they would be given immunity from suit for all Napoles-related transactions whether it involved pork barrel or other government funds.
“Even at the risk of prosecution of being made to execute incriminating sworn affidavits without prior grant of immunity, our clients have continued to fully cooperate in the investigation and prosecution by your office the anomalies caused and created by Napoles and her cohorts,” she said.
The whistle-blowers’ fears of being charged in court for a nonbailable offense were prompted by the inclusion of Sula and Tuazon as defendants in the fertilizer and Malampaya fund scams that also involved Napoles.
“Their inclusion underscores the instability and inadequacy of the protection and immunity that our clients are currently receiving, especially now that the charges against Sula and Tuazon have come from no less than this honorable office,” Garen said.
Benipayo said Sula was charged in the fertilizer scam case “for the same NGO she has been testifying on for all other cases.”
The whistle-blowers also feared that the lawsuits could come from the politicians they had implicated in the scam.
Garen noted that former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. sought to remove her client from the Witness Protection Program (WPP) in the case that Pimentel had filed against Sunas.
Garen said Pimentel also moved to take Luy out of the WPP in another case. Pimentel has fought back in court accusations made by Suñas that he diverted part of his PDAF to bogus Napoles foundations in 2003 and his inclusion by Luy on Napoles’ list of PDAF partners.
Benipayo said the Ombudsman’s actions had “instilled deep-seated fear knowing that these are nonbailable offenses.”
She said it was “unfair and extremely prejudicial” for Morales to charge the whistle-blowers who might join those they have accused in jail.
Garen asked Morales to grant a motu proprio recall or withdrawal of the charges against Sula and Tuason from the fertilizer and Malampaya fund scams “to erase the fear and anxiety not only of these two witnesses but also the other witnesses Arlene Baltazar, Merlina Suñas, and Benhur Luy who may also be charged by your office anytime despite their unwavering cooperation.”
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