3 Sandiganbayan justices quit cases vs Jinggoy Estrada
MANILA, Philippines–“Pressure” from the public and “higher authorities” prompted the three-member Sandiganbayan division to withdraw on Monday from the plunder and graft cases against detained Sen. Jinggoy Estrada over the P10-billion pork barrel racket, according to an Inquirer source.
In an unprecedented move, Associate Justice Roland Jurado, chair of the antigraft court’s Fifth Division, and Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Estoesta inhibited themselves from handling one of the most controversial cases in the country’s judicial history.
The three justices informed the Sandiganbayan of their decision in a single-page letter they sent to Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang—a first in its 36-year history that the entire division asked to be
recused from hearing a case.
No specific reason was stated other than “personal reasons.”
But a court insider told the Inquirer that the justices gave in to pressure from various sectors for them to deny Estrada’s petition for bail on which hearings had been going on since July.
BIR added pressure
The source, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, said the decision of the Supreme Court to allow the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to look into the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of the Sandiganbayan magistrates had also affected the justices’ decision.
“Since the issue of the pork barrel scam broke out in the media, the public perception is that all the personalities implicated in the controversy should be convicted,” the source said.
“Even the higher authorities were consistently and confidently saying in public that all legislators charged in the Sandiganbayan would be found guilty by the court. If you’re a judge, that would definitely weigh on how you would treat this case. It’s a pressure on your judgment,” he added.
Asked if he was referring to Malacañang when he mentioned “higher authorities,” the source said: “Just read my lips.”
Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Bong Revilla have also been indicted and arrested for their alleged complicity in the scam by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
Revilla and Estrada are detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame, Quezon City, while the 90-year-old Enrile is under hospital arrest at the PNP General Hospital.
Two weeks ago, the Sandiganbayan First Division denied Revilla’s bail petition. The senator was given until Dec. 17 to ask for a motion for reconsideration.
Besides the Estrada’s plunder case, the Fifth Division is also hearing the graft and malversation cases against former Makati City Mayor Elenita Binay, wife of embattled Vice President Jejomar Binay.
The division is also hearing the graft cases against former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo and several retired police generals regarding the alleged sale of secondhand helicopters to the PNP.
According to the Inquirer source, the high court’s resolution which granted the BIR’s request to scrutinize the SALN of the Sandiganbayan justices was an “added pressure.”
“We know what happened to the known critics of the government and those allied with former President (Gloria Macapagal-) Arroyo. They were harassed by the BIR by threatening to file tax evasion cases against them,” the source said.
“The problem with the BIR officials is that they treat government officials who have discrepancies in their SALNs as if they are already guilty of embezzling public funds. The Supreme Court resolution is a blanket authority to harass the justices of Sandiganbayan,” he argued.
The Inquirer tried but failed to get the comment of Jurado, who attended the court’s last en banc session on Monday, the last for this year. Both Estoesta and Gesmundo were on leave.
Renato Bocar, the Sandiganbayan executive clerk of court, said Tang referred the letter to the court en banc for discussion in January and hear the explanation of the three justices.
He told the Inquirer only one of the three members of the division was present during the en banc session on Monday, but he declined to identify the magistrate.
“The justice did not want to elaborate what was their reason because he was not authorized by the two other justices,” Bocar said. “But the reason must be really compelling because all the three of them agreed with the reason why they had to inhibit.”
In a text message to reporters, Alexis Abastillas-Suarez, Estrada’s lawyer, said: “We have absolutely no idea of the ‘personal reasons’ why they want to inhibit from the case. We wonder why now?”
“I am really at a loss,” said Justice Undersecretary Jose Justiniano, a member of the prosecution team. “I can’t say why they inhibited,” he told reporters. “I hope the inhibition will not cause any delay.”–With a report from Jerome C. Aning
Originally posted: 9:57 PM | Monday, December 15th, 2014
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