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More witnesses to appear at Comelec-DoJ probe

The secretary of justice is “very excited” as more personalities were expressing willingness to cooperate with the joint probe into the 2004 presidential and 2007 senatorial polls by the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

The Comelec and the DoJ on Tuesday formally announced the creation of the joint committee that would look into the purported widespread fraud in the presidential and senatorial polls.

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Speaking at a press briefing, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. said the committee would be composed of three representatives of the DoJ and two of the Comelec.

De Lima said more personalities—“men in the field, election officials, in the military and the PNP (Philippine National Police)”—had been sending feelers to the government, expressing willingness to cooperate in the investigation.

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She said she had been conducting “discreet” meetings with certain individuals since last week to discuss their knowledge of the election irregularities that purportedly benefited then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her allies.

Because of the sensitivity of the issues involved, De Lima said she would personally oversee the proceedings of the five-member committee that would be headed by a justice undersecretary or a senior state prosecutor.

“If only I had more time, I would have wanted to lead the panel,” she said.

Golden opportunity

De Lima said she and Brillantes had discussed how to deal with those who had expressed intentions to “participate” in the committee’s proceedings.

“To be honest, I’m excited about this investigation. Very excited. This, I think, is a singular golden opportunity. We always talk about fraud, but nothing happens. Let us not blow our chance in determining the truth,” she said.

She added that the investigation “will most probably, if not most surely, lead to the filing of charges” against those involved in electoral fraud.

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De Lima said it would be up to the committee’s legal staff to research on who could still be charged.

Brillantes said that while election offenses committed in the 2004 election were deemed to have prescribed after five years, a different rule would be applied to Arroyo, who was immune from suit until her term ended in June 2010.

Possible witnesses

Those who have come out so far are suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, dismissed Maguindanao Election Supervisor Lintang Bedol, two municipal election officers from the province, National Citizens Movement for Free Elections-Lanao del Sur chair Abdullah Daligdig, and a group of police officers led by Senior Supt. Rafael Santiago.

Lawyer Alan Paguia, who has a pending complaint against Arroyo and former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, said he was also willing to testify at the DoJ-Comelec inquiry.

Paguia has his own compact disc version of the “Hello Garci” tapes, which contain purported tapped phone conversations between Arroyo and Garcillano on rigging the results of the 2004 presidential election.

De Lima said she was keeping her own list of possible witnesses but refused to divulge their names.

“I’m still vetting [them] and the vetting is continuous,” she said, adding:

“There are a number of potentially valuable witnesses. As to whether or not they are as valuable as Garcillano, that one I cannot say at this point. But they are valuable enough to be part of the joint investigation.

“And there are more who are willing to come out.”

De Lima said some of the personalities had actually showed her their draft affidavits.

A longtime election lawyer, De Lima said her expertise in election laws would help her analyze the plausibility of the possible witnesses’ sworn statements.

“I will submit the names of the personalities on my list to the panel members, [for deliberation on whether] they can be witnesses in the inquiry,” she said.

Brillantes earlier said the Comelec might still subpoena Garcillano in relation to Paguia’s unresolved complaint that was filed in March 2007.

De Lima also did not rule out summoning Garcillano, adding that the committee might still look at the possible violations of the penal code and other offenses that the latter might have committed.

She said criminal offenses had longer prescription periods.

De Lima said that after convening, the committee would formulate its rules, which would have to be approved by the DoJ and the Comelec.

She said the proceedings would be “generally” open to the public “unless there are reasons [for the conduct of an] executive session, such as national security.”

Brillantes said the rules would be out in “five to seven days” so that the committee could begin its formal hearings late next week.

De Lima said the Comelec and the DoJ offices might serve as alternating venues.

She and Brillantes said the time frame of the inquiry would also be up to the committee members.

De Lima had earlier said she would not take part in any final decision by the DoJ regarding the 2007 elections because she was the lawyer of an opposition senatorial candidate, Aquilino Pimentel III.

Brillantes had also said he would inhibit from any final decision by the Comelec as to who would be charged because he was the lawyer of the 2007 Genuine Opposition senatorial slate, under which Pimentel ran. He was also the lawyer of the late movie actor Fernando Poe Jr., Arroyo’s main challenger in the 2004 presidential race.

Another reason for Brillantes’ inhibition, he had said, was a distant nephew, lawyer Roque Bello, had been implicated by Senior Supt. Rafael Santiago in the switching of 2004 election returns deposited at the Batasang Pambansa.

At the “Ugnayan sa Batasan” media forum, Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon said the Comelec should be purged of main operators in the 2004 and 2007 elections, such as ARMM Director Rey Sumalipao, to ensure that electoral reforms would be implemented.

“Those who cheated have to pay for their misdeeds. The resolution of who won or lost in the elections is not an issue to us, but the most important thing is for the Comelec to hold accountable the people who were part of the election cheating, especially those who are still in position today,” Biazon said.

“One of them has been promoted from an obscure position to regional director. I am referring to Sumalipao,” the lawmaker said.

Biazon was a purported target of election cheating in the 2007 senatorial elections, where he fell to the 12th and last spot with a mere 6,000-vote lead over the next closest candidate (the late Sen. Robert Barbers).

He said he could have had a 600,000-vote lead if the true results of the certificates of canvass in Southern Mindanao were counted.

‘Don’t mess with me’

“I won simply because I fought back,” Biazon said.

“I called up people who were with GMA (Arroyo), and I told them not to mess with me or I will mess them all up. ‘Isasabit ko ang boss n’yo (I will implicate your boss),’” he said.

But he refused to name a military colleague who was purportedly in the middle of the election operations in 2004.

Biazon cited the purported efforts of the Arroyo administration to cover up electoral fraud in 2004 with the issuance of Executive Order No. 464, which barred government executives and military officers from testifying in congressional inquiries without the consent of the President. It was later declared unconstitutional.

He said EO 464 was specifically issued against retired Marine Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani and Lt. Col. Alexander Balutan, to stop them from testifying at a Senate hearing on electoral fraud in 2005.

Biazon said he had the documents to show that the administration moved to ensure that rival candidates would have zero votes in the Mindanao precincts.

He also said that in the “Hello Garci” tape provided by former military spy Vidal Doble, one of the conversations indicated the operators’ concerns about his complaints about being cheated.

“We have to know how [fraud] was done so we will know how to prevent it,” Biazon said.

“The military component is not that important because of automation. They are not needed to guard the poll documents. What remains key is the role of the Comelec and the need to ensure its integrity from outside influence,” he said.

Inquirer Mindanao’s efforts to reach Sumalipao for comment proved fruitless.

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TAGS: 2004 Presidential Election, 2007 senatorial polls, Aquilino Pimentel III, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, Comelec-DoJ joint committee probe, Commission on Elections (Comelec), Department of Justice (DoJ), dismissed Maguindanao Election Supervisor Lintang Bedol, lawyer Alan Paguia, National Citizens Movement for Free Elections-Lanao del Sur chair Abdullah Daligdig, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Senior Supt. Rafael Santiago
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