DOJ readies panel on slay raps vs Bantag et al.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has formed a three-member panel of prosecutors that would conduct the preliminary investigation of the two murder complaints filed in relation to the killings of radio commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and inmate Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña, the alleged middleman in the plot to assassinate the feisty radioman-vlogger.
Prosecutor General Benedicto Malcontento also said that the two murder complaints had been consolidated against suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag, BuCor deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta, who are the alleged masterminds, and confessed gunman Joel Escorial.
Three New Bilibid Prison (NBP) gang leaders, six NBP inmates and a prisoner at Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, who is said to be a trusted aide of Bantag, also face murder charges in connection with the Oct. 3 killing of Mabasa and Palaña, a convict serving time at NBP who died mysteriously on Oct. 18, a day after Escorial surrendered to the police.
An autopsy by forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun found that Palaña’s death was a homicide and that he was suffocated likely with the use of a plastic bag.
The DOJ panel will be headed by Deputy State Prosecutor Olivia Laroza Torrevillas. Its members are Senior Assistant State Prosecutors Charlie Guhit and Josie Christina Dugay.
Malcontento said subpoenas would be issued to Bantag and his co-respondents to appear before the panel to respond to the accusations against them.
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said that consolidating the complaints would make the job of the prosecution easier.
“They’re interrelated. They’re related to each other. One murder came after another. It was a cover-up for the other. Obviously, that’s what happened,” he said.
“Villamor would not have died if Percy Lapid did not perish,” he added.
Escorial told investigators that Palaña contacted him for the killing of Mabasa and that he received P550,000 for the hit job.
The authorities have not yet disclosed who deposited the money into the bank account of Escorial, who acted as paymaster for five of his own accomplices in the attack on Mabasa, including Palaña, two backup gunmen, another middleman and the driver of his getaway motorcycle after he shot the broadcaster.
No reason to hide
Rocky Thomas Balisong, Bantag’s lawyer, said his client was “dismayed” that the investigation pointed to him as the brains of the two murders despite his vehement and repeated denials.
Balisong said Bantag was determined to clear his name, adding that the suspended BuCor chief was not in hiding.
“There is no reason for him to hide. He will face the charges against him through the legal processes,” he said in an interview with One News’ “The Chiefs” on Wednesday night.
“He is willing to face the charges against him because that is the only way for him to clear his name,” he added.
Balisong said Bantag was “not under any obligation to present himself to the public.”
“He also cannot surrender since there was no warrant of arrest against him,” he added. “He could show himself before Justice Secretary Remulla out of courtesy, but he is not under any obligation to do so.”
BuCor is one of the agencies under the DOJ.
According to Balisong, Bantag was not appearing in public because “he has fear for his life.”
“[When he was ordered suspended] he was disarmed, and his close-in security were pulled out. For security reasons, he does not want to roam around, considering that he faced off with a lot of personalities [as BuCor director general], including drug lords,” he said.
No direct mention
When the time comes for his client to surrender, “we will convince him,” Balisong said. “What is important is we will follow the process, but we will also avail of the legal remedies available to us,” he said.
Balisong said he last spoke with Bantag on Wednesday and that they were only relying on news accounts about the progress of the investigation.
He said he and Bantag had not yet discussed what defense would be put up for his client but “it could be possible” to point out that the sworn statements of the inmates did not directly mention him.
“The link [to him as mastermind] was only because of the testimonies of the inmates and the gunman. But they only mentioned ‘Bantag,’ they did not say that it was ‘Gerald Bantag.’ What we can infer with that initially is there is no direct lead to him,” Balisong noted.
Mabasa’s brother, journalist Roy Mabasa, said in a recent radio interview that his family was open to Bantag being included in the Witness Protection Program if he points to the real mastermind of the assassination.
But Remulla said that the courts would have to decide on that.
“Discharging a witness is not as easy as you think. There are many legal requirements for this to be done,” he said. INQ
Lapid case principal accused Bantag, BuCor exec urged to surrender now
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