Napoles, pork scam ‘brains,’ gets gov’t protection
Janet Lim-Napoles, whose alleged scheme to siphon off billions of pesos in congressional funds exposed high-level corruption in the country, may just pull off one of the biggest reversals in the country’s legal history.
As she stands trial for plunder in the P10-billion pork barrel scam, Napoles took a step away from being an accused and closer to becoming a state witness, after she was temporarily granted protection by the Duterte administration last month, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II disclosed on Friday.
Citing threats to her life, Napoles on Friday asked to be transferred from her detention cell at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City to the custody of the witness protection program (WPP) of the Department of Justice (DOJ), according to documents submitted to the Sandiganbayan.
In an urgent motion received on March 16 by the Sandiganbayan’s First Division, Napoles’ lawyer, Stephen David, urged the court to transfer Napoles from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology to the DOJ.
“[T]here are already manifestations of threat, intimidation and harassment, making her security a concern in view of the fact that her present place of confinement is publicly known,” the motion said.
‘Incidents of harassments’
Without giving details, it added that there had been “incidents of harassments, intimidation and threats on her life and security, which could be avoided if the DOJ-WPP would be allowed to protect accused-movant as a covered witness.”
The decision by the DOJ to provisionally admit Napoles into the WPP came nearly a year after the Court of Appeals acquitted her of illegally detaining whistle-blower Benhur Luy upon the intercession of Solicitor General Jose Calida.
Following her acquittal, Aguirre created a task force to reinvestigate the pork barrel scam after meeting one of Napoles’ counsels.
Aguirre said then that Napoles implicated at least three more senators and two former executive officials in the scheme to funnel funds from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocations of lawmakers to bogus nongovernment organizations in exchange for kickbacks.
The DOJ decision to give her witness protection could further inflame public outrage at the DOJ after the recent decision by state prosecutors to absolve Peter Lim, President Duterte’s wedding cosponsor, Kerwin Espinosa and other suspects in a drug trafficking case.
Aguirre, who has shunned calls for him to resign in connection with the bungling of the drug charges against Lim and the others, quickly clarified that Napoles had not been physically taken under the protective custody of the WPP.
“We confirm that … Napoles has been placed under provisional admission of WPP subject to (the) affidavit she submitted which is now undergoing assessment,” Aguirre said in a text message.
He said Napoles may be provided by the DOJ with “additional security” and “medical needs” if she requested such arrangements.
In a certification signed by Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Ma. Nerissa Molina-Carpio, the DOJ provisionally admitted Napoles to its Witness Protection Security and Benefit Program starting Feb. 27.
A day after she was admitted into the WPP, her lawyer asked Aguirre to immediately take her into custody “before this news came to the public.”
“Our fear is that once we course this request through another avenue, her admission to the program will spread like wildfire to the public and to her opponents who have personal interests on her case,” David said in the Feb. 28 letter.
Other justice department officials appeared to be at a loss in explaining Napoles’ provisional admission into the WPP.
Justice Undersecretary Erickson Balmes, the DOJ spokesperson, said he could not provide the exact reason the alleged architect of the misuse of the PDAF was now being considered as a government witness.
“My apologies. (The) contents of her provisional admission is confidential,” Balmes said. “(Napoles) has executed an affidavit which is now under assessment.”
According to Balmes, the temporary protection given to Napoles may be rescinded or converted into a full coverage after a review by the DOJ.
Justice Undersecretary Raymund Mecate, the DOJ official tasked to supervise the WPP, said the DOJ chief “does not confer the status as a witness to any person.”
“He merely extends protection under the WPP,” Mecate said. “The determination of whether or not a person is going to be used as a witness is done by the prosecuting officer in charge of the case.”
As mandated by law, graft and corruption offenses involving senior government officials, such as the PDAF-related cases, were being handled by the Office of the Ombudsman. —WITH REPORTS FROM DJ YAP AND TETCH TORRES-TUPAS
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