Bantag no-show at DOJ probe; lawyer notes wrong middle name in summons
MANILA, Philippines — Suspended prison agency chief Gerald Bantag skipped the preliminary inquiry into the murders of radio broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa and alleged middleman Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña, as Bantag’s lawyer seized onto the wrong middle name in the summons that for him was a “fatal” defect in the case.
Lawyer Rocky Balisong pointed out during Wednesday’s proceeding that the subpoena he received on Monday requiring his client, whose middle name is Quitaleg, to attend the hearing had been addressed to a “Gerald Soriano Bantag.”
“That is fatal because it refers to two different individuals. Definitely, Gerald Bantag y Soriano is not our client, it is Gerald Bantag y Quitaleg,” Balisong told reporters after the hearing.
But Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Charlie Guhit refuted Balisong’s claim that the mistake was anything crucial.
He told reporters that the matter was duly addressed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) panel during the hearing.
“Also, another subpoena was issued by the panel and was accordingly received by Attorney Balisong. Moreover, he manifested that all orders of the panel may be addressed to his law office in Baguio City,” Guhit said.
Bantag, who is on preventive suspension as director general of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), and his purported right-hand man, BuCor Deputy Security Officer Ricardo Zulueta, whose whereabouts are unknown, are respondents in the consolidated cases for the murders of Mabasa on Oct. 3 and Palaña on Oct. 18.
Principals by inducement
Bantag, along with Zulueta, was charged as a principal “by inducement” in the murders purportedly over a grudge due to the journalist’s hard-hitting commentaries against him on radio and the latter’s widely followed social media platforms.
Mabasa was shot dead on Oct. 3 by one of two men on a motorcycle near the gate of the Las Piñas City subdivision where he lived.
Palaña, an inmate at New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, was found dead on Oct. 18, a few hours after being implicated as one of the middlemen by the confessed gunman, Joel Escorial, during a news conference arranged by authorities.
An independent autopsy by forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun showed he may have been suffocated to death with a plastic bag.
Disappointed but hopeful
Mabasa’s younger brother, journalist Roy Mabasa, who attended the preliminary investigation, expressed disappointment over the absence of Bantag and Zulueta but added that his family remained hopeful that justice would be served.
“Delays may be part of our quest for justice. But every delay, of course, is an injustice to Ka Percy,” he said. “But we’re not in a hurry. We remain hopeful … what we’re searching for is justice, and we know that this is not an easy process,” he added.
Mabasa said the error in Bantag’s name didn’t dent his confidence in the competence and fairness of the DOJ panel.
He told the Inquirer he was optimistic that new evidence presented by the National Bureau of Investigation to the prosecutors “would help strengthen the case against Mr. Bantag and others.”
The evidence was received by the three-member panel consisting of Deputy State Prosecutor Olivia Torrevilla and Senior Assistant State Prosecutors Josie Christina Dugay and Guhit.
The next hearing is on Dec. 5 but Mabasa said he didn’t believe either Bantag or Zulueta would show up.
“They might just present counteraffidavits, as [the lawyers] did not say or signify that they will make their clients attend,” he said.
Losing end of public opinion
But Mabasa cautioned Bantag and Zulueta that they might find themselves at the “losing end” of public opinion by their absence.
“They should show up … speak right [where] the hearing is. That is the right process,” he said.
Mabasa said Bantag’s absence might also be related to recent allegations against him by BuCor.
Since his suspension, BuCor officials have found various questionable activities at NBP, including a 30-meter-deep excavation allegedly in a clandestine hunt for “Yamashita treasure,” an assortment of unauthorized animals, including horses and pythons, and various contraband items, including over 7,500 cans of beer.
“[Bantag] has a lot to answer for, aside from this case of Percy and [the] alleged middleman,” Mabasa said, adding: “There are so many issues thrown at him, not just from our family, but from the DOJ itself [and] BuCor, as these all happened under his stewardship.”
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