Palace urges anti-poverty chief to surrender: We can't have a fugitive as secretary

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National Anti-Poverty Commission Secretary Liza Maza

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 31) — Malacañang on Tuesday called on Anti-Poverty Commissioner Liza Maza to surrender, following the arrest warrant issued against her and three other former solons over a murder charge.

"She has to respect the rule of law. I ask her to surrender, face the charges against her, [and] prove her innocence," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a Palace press briefing Tuesday.

President Rodrigo Duterte has not fired Maza, but Roque said this might happen soon if she continues to evade authorities and fail to fulfill her duties as Cabinet member.

"She cannot be absent, her office is very critical to the fight against poverty and we cannot have a secretary who is a fugitive from the law," Roque said.

A court in Nueva Ecija province on July 11 ordered the arrest of Maza, along with fellow former congressmen and prominent leaders from the Left – former Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael "Paeng" Mariano who also served as Anakpawis Partylist lawmaker, and former Bayan Muna House Representatives Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casino. Maza previously represented Gabriela Women's Party at the lower chamber.

The four were accused of murdering three supporters of rival partylist Akbayan in Nueva Ecija, particularly Danny Felipe and Jimmy Peralta in 2001, and Carlito Bayudang in 2004. Charges were filed in 2006, however, Public Interest Law Center managing counsel Rachelle Pasteros said the case had been junked by the Regional Trial Court of Guimba, Nueva Ecija in 2008.

Maza and the other former solons maintained their innocence, and their camp filed a motion for reconsideration on Monday.

Roque urged all the four accused to face the charges against them.

"If they are innocent, they should in fact surrender, recognize the jurisdiction of the court and prove their innocence in court," Roque said.

The Public Interest Law Center whose lawyers are representing the former solons, said they will dispute the murder charges at the proper venue and under impartial processes.

"She (Maza) will participate in the proceedings not only in due observance of the "rule of law", but more decisively, to attain justice," PILC managing counsel Rachel Pastores said in a statement.

Mariano, along with Maza and former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, were among the Cabinet secretaries nominated by the Left. Their appointments were made amid the efforts of the Duterte administration to negotiate peace with communist rebels, but these talks are now in limbo.

However, both Mariano and Taguiwalo were rejected by the Commission on Appointments, prompting criticism that Duterte's administration was not serious in its push for reform and peace.

Palace denies hand in resurrection of charges

Malacañang on Tuesday also dismissed speculations the leftist leaders and former lawmakers are being subject to political persecution.

Roque said the Palace "absolutely" had no hand in the resurrection of charges against them, saying the executive does not have the power to issue warrants of arrest.

Roque said Maza should not be afraid that her legal rights would be violated, and stressed that "our courts can be relied upon for impartial decision."

He likened Maza's case to that of Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center on drug charges. De Lima, a staunch critic of the Duterte administration, said her drug cases were trumped up.

"Possibly, they can give her (Maza) similar detention facility as what Leila de Lima has. I don't know if they can be roommates with Leila de Lima. I do not know if they will like each other but similar treatment perhaps," Roque said.

He said Maza has not asked for any sort of assistance from the Palace.

When asked if Malacañang is willing to assist her in case she asks for help, Roque said, "we'll see what we can do."

But the solons' counsel called on Malacañang to stop the "injustice."

"Malacañang has said it has nothing to do with the revival of the trumped-up case; if so, it is nevertheless in a position to rectify the injustice committed against the four former lawmakers," Pastores said.

She added that the charges against Maza and the former solons would not have prospered if the government only followed the rule of law.

She has said the case should have not been revived as the charges are trumped-up and have lost substantive ground because of court findings that the complainants and witnesses made false statements and acted in bad faith.