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Diokno goes on leave

Leviste clears prison officials of blame

MANILA, Philippines—Embattled Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director Ernesto Diokno on Monday took a leave of absence from his post, pushing aside calls for him to resign outright and save President Benigno Aquino III from further political embarrassment.

Diokno, reputed to be a close friend of the President, went on leave even as a Department of Justice (DoJ) panel opened a formal inquiry into how convicted killer and former Batangas Gov. Jose Antonio Leviste was able to leave prison for a supposed medical checkup without official authorization.

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Testifying before the panel, Leviste claimed he was under the “illusion” that he had already become part of the official BuCor family for the tree-planting program he had launched as an inmate and therefore could leave prison premises without authority.

“I made a mistake,” Leviste told the panel headed by Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III.

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He also seemed to take pains in trying to absolve prison officials of responsibility for what he did.

Malacañang welcomed the move taken by Diokno, but the President told reporters that it seemed clear that Leviste was able to temporarily leave the state penitentiary in Muntinlupa City because someone was sleeping on the job.

Mr. Aquino indicated that he was determined to get to the bottom of the highly publicized caper of a former politician serving a 6-12-year jail term for shooting to death a former political aide four years ago.

“Obviously, someone did not do his job,” Mr. Aquino said. “The question is, who and how many of them needed to [be] set right? Can they still be reformed or is it necessary for them to be relieved?”

He added: “I’m hoping the DoJ in its report will be as comprehensive as possible and will give me all the factual basis as to the rules and regulations (governing prisoners supposedly with living-out privileges).”

Why not resign?

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Monday said she had asked Diokno to resign to insulate Mr. Aquino from any political backlash as a result of Leviste’s “prison break” on May 18.

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De Lima said she candidly asked Diokno during their one-on-one meeting at the DoJ offices if he was considering quitting his post.

“I was thinking of the President … to shield him from further controversy because this is becoming an issue to further malign and cast the President in a bad light,” she told reporters.

“For the sake of the President, perhaps Director Diokno would consider resigning,” she added.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also said Diokno should resign.

“If I were to make a decision he has to go,” Enrile told reporters. “This is not about command responsibility. It’s a question of who is responsible for the bureau … He cannot pass the buck to anybody.”

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said: “Leviste personifies a rotten system. It just so happened that he was the one caught but I think there were many of them (prisoners) who had been doing that in the past.”

Not ruled out

Wearing a white polo barong, Diokno—reportedly a former shooting buddy of the President—looked relaxed and refused to answer media questions as he emerged from his 30-minute meeting with De Lima.

Although Diokno refused to quit his post immediately, De Lima said Diokno was “not ruling out” such a possibility.

“He said he might consider it. But for now, he said he would stand by his position. He said he is willing, ready and will be able to prove that he was not amiss (in his duties),” De Lima said.

She downplayed calls for her to recommend Diokno’s preventive suspension, saying that would be “premature” since it would still depend on the findings of the DoJ investigating panel.

In his letter to De Lima, Diokno guaranteed De Lima his full cooperation in the probe. He said he decided to go on leave “to give a free hand to the … fact-finding body to determine the extent of liability among BuCor officers in connection” with the Leviste incident.

“This way, people will not think that I am influencing the outcome of the investigation. Whoever is liable must be made answerable,” he said in his letter dated May 21, which was received by De Lima’s office on Monday.

Others involved

He recommended that Assistant BuCor Director Teodora Diaz temporarily take his place.

Diokno said he was saddened that the incident occurred “in the midst of all my efforts in instituting genuine reforms in prison.”

Since other BuCor officials may also be included in the investigation, De Lima said she might designate Undersecretary Baraan as officer in charge of the prisons agency.

At Monday’s inquiry chaired by Senior State Prosecutor Susan Dacanay, Leviste basically admitted sneaking out of his confinement to have a toothache checked and that his act was his own doing. No one else was behind it, he insisted.

His apparent defense of BuCor—including its policies and procedures, which are now under scrutiny by no less than the President—prompted one panelist to ask if Leviste was trying to protect anyone in the bureau.

Leviste replied in the negative, and again reiterated that his slipping out of prison was his own doing. If other people would be sanctioned for what he did, the former governor said it would be a “great injustice” to them.

His trees

Throughout the panel questioning, Leviste repeatedly mentioned his “billion trees” project which, he said, helped him “earn” the living-out status, usually accorded to inmates about to complete their prison sentences.

He could barely recall how he obtained the status, except to say that he wrote to the previous BuCor administration, which granted his request.

“I did not ask for any privilege. I earned it,” Leviste said, reiterating the progress that he had made with his tree-planting project.

Later, when the panelists could not find any provision for living-out status in the BuCor operating manual, prison officials admitted the privilege was a kind of an “internal arrangement” in the bureau.

Unanswered questions

Investigators also learned that a living-out privilege was granted by prison superintendents alone, which Baraan noted could be abused.

At the proceedings, Leviste wore an orange prison shirt, the color assigned to inmates at the maximum security compound.

Before his escapade, Leviste had been kept in the minimum security camp, based on his prison sentence.

The former governor declined to answer some questions, like how many times did he leave the compound and if he had been previously warned by Diokno.

“I will answer in due time,” Leviste replied.

Leviste said he still had a case in court on evading his prison sentence and he could only answer those questions after he had given his testimony.

BuCor officials grilled in the afternoon were Assistant Director Teodora Diaz, NBP Supt. Ramon Reyes and former Bilibid Supt. Armando Miranda.

The three said that from what they knew this was the first time Leviste slipped out of prison unauthorized.

Asked what route he took in leaving the prison compound, Leviste gave the impression that he all but waltzed out of the NBP reservation, exiting through the main gate.

His vehicle wasn’t stopped to be checked by sentries although prison guards were at an outpost to keep watch, Leviste recalled.

He also went on a tirade against flaws he said he found in the prison system, particularly allowing civilians within the 500-ha reservation.

People who lived in government housing areas within the reservation came and went without being checked by guards, he said.

‘Better performance’

“We certainly welcome his (Diokno) decision to take a leave of absence,” said the President’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda.

Aside from finding out what happened in Leviste’s case, Lacierda said the President also wanted to see “an improvement in the conduct and performance of BuCor officials.” With reports from TJ Burgonio and Cynthia D. Balana

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TAGS: Bureau of Corrections, Crime and Law and Justice, Former Batangas Gov. Jose Antonio Leviste, Graft & Corruption, prison break
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