House grants immunity to witnesses in NBP drug trade probe; De Lima a no-show

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The House of Representatives started its probe on the proliferation of illegal drugs in the national penitentiary. The House Speaker granted immunity to six witnesses. Former Justice Secretary and now Senator Leila De Lima did not show up despite the invitation.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The House of Representatives on Tuesday started the ball rolling on its probe on the proliferation of illegal drugs and the drug trade in National Bilibid Prisons (NBP).

Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, Chairman of the House Committee on Justice, said the investigation aims to address two priority measures endorsed by President Duterte in his first State of the Nation Address – the restoration of death penalty for heinous crimes, and a proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility.

Knowing what transpired in the Senate hearings on extrajudicial killings, Umali urged the members to engage each other and the resource persons "in an orderly manner" and "with proper decorum."

During discussion, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre appealed to the Committee, to grant immunity to the witnesses brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The six witnesses include NBP inmates Jaime Patcho, Rodolfo Magleo, Noel Martinez, and convicted drug dealer Herbert Colanggo; former NBI agent Jovencio Ablen, and former Bureau of Corrections official Rafael Ragos – who, according to Aguirre, are both in the custody of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

READ: De Lima: PNP Special Action Force 'possibly torturing' prisoners to give false evidence

House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas explained that it will be Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez who will finally approve the granting of immunity for the witnesses, as recommended by the Justice Committee.

"It has to be approved by the Speaker. We saw what happened in the Senate in the hearing there. They presented a witness and after the hearing, the chairman or the former chairman of the committee asked the Senate President for the acceptance or inclusion into the witness protection program of the government but the Senate President denied the request," Fariñas said.

This caused apprehension on the part of some of the committee members at first.

Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro of Capiz said the committee might be putting the lives of the witnesses in danger, since the granting of immunity by the committee is just recommendatory in nature.

"As we understood from the explanation of the majority leader… It is the signature of the Speaker that will be the operative act… Now, if we approve it now, are we not endangering these witnesses?" De Castro said.

This put the hearing in a deadlock, since DOJ's witnesses were not allowed to testify early on.

Aguirre pointed out, these witnesses may shed light on how the drug trade in the Bilibid is carried out. He said DOJ did not promise anything to the witnesses, neither did the witnesses ask anything from the DOJ.

Aguirre said it was the witnesses' lawyers who asked testimonial immunity for their clients.

READ: Drug lords, high-profile inmates to testify vs De Lima

"I agree that it's very reasonable. They agree that the drug trade in the Bilibid should stop.  And so I believe, that whatever they tell here, I believe that they should be given immunity," Aguirre said.

"Whatever they will testify, we led them to believe, that whatever they testify here, that could not be used against them."

Fariñas himself attended to Aguirre's request, and sought for the approval of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.

Alvarez approved the request, admitting the witnesses into the witness protection program, and granting them immunity from all and any criminal prosecutions for the offense or offenses in which their testimonies will be used – provided, according to Fariñas, that the witnesses "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

The need to investigate

Umali said, the committee has to get to the bottom of the proliferation of drug syndicates and illegal drugs in the NBP, by creating legislation, or a directive to the appropriate agency to issue the necessary administrative regulation, as part of their oversight function in congress.

He added, the committee, in aid of legislation, must also be able to determine "who among the responsible government officials before and even today are culpable through direct participation for gross inexcusable negligence in allowing these syndicates to proliferate while inside the supposed maximum security compound."

"These convicted persons are supposed to serve their sentence as punishment imposed on them by the judiciary," Umali said.

"This is supposed to be the closure for the victims and their families. Unfortunately, the fact these convicted felons are still able to continue with their illegal activities while incarcerated makes a complete mockery of our criminal justice system."

Several committee members also enumerated reasons why the investigation has to be conducted.

Correctional Reforms sub-committee Vice Chairman Henry Oaminal, refreshed the memories of the committee members of the NBP raid in December 2014 – where luxury items like asauna, Jacuzzi, high-end watches, flat screen television sets, and laptops aside from illegal drugs were seized.

"In the villa of Peter Co, authorities have also seized documents containing a list of names with corresponding cash amounts and dates involving drug transactions.  Meanwhile, in another kubol occupied by robbery gang leader Herbert Colangco, Police found a music studio, where he was reportedly able to produce a music video that went viral on youtube," he added.

Oaminal said despite these raids, illegal drug trade in NBP not only continued, "but actually thrives."

Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, who authored the House resolution 105, or the "Resolution calling for an investigation in aid of legislation on the proliferation of drug syndicates at the National Bilibid Prison," said there is a direct correlation between the rise in drug cases and criminality.

"These drug lords have the audacity to operate a nationwide drug syndicate while serving sentences of their crimes," Suarez said.

"This could not have happened without the approval of several government high officials."

De Lima, a no show

Former Justice Secretary, now Sen. Leila De Lima, was true to her word that she would not show up or would even send an observer or representative in the House probe.

Umali said the House Justice Committee's investigation is not a "kangaroo probe," nor is conducted to persecute her publicly – as what the Senator earlier claimed.

READ: Gordon: De Lima ousted as Justice chair to maintain objectivity

Batangas Rep. Raneo Abu, meanwhile, affirmed to the committee that De Lima received their invitation.

"The office of [Senator] De Lima received the invitation coming from this committee by Ms. Laika Marcelo," Abu said. He stressed that invite specifically stated that the probe aims "to shed light on the matter and to assist the committee on its inquiry."

Abu added, the invitation by the House of Representatives is in itself, an act of showing fairness to the Senator.

"Pinakikita ng committee yung fairness. She invokes yung inter-parliamentary courtesy. And personally, Mr. Chairman, a manifestation that ang tamang kurtesiya na maibibigay natin sa kasamahan natin sa isang co-equal chamber ay magkaroon sya ng lugar kung saan mapapasubalian nya kung anuman ang mga bagay na madidiscuss dito," Abu said.

[Translation: The committee showed its fairness… Personally Mr. Chairman, I have to make a manifestation that the right courtesy is to give our colleague in a co-equal chamber the venue where she can deny or confirm whatever is being discussed in this investigation.]

The House probe will resume hearing on Wednesday, September 21.