PAO asks Duterte to reject defunding of forensic laboratory

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 12) — The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) wrote Wednesday to President Rodrigo Duterte asking him to reject provisions in the 2020 defunding their forensic laboratory, which blamed Dengvaxia for the deaths of children who received the dengue vaccine.

In a seven-page letter to Duterte, PAO officials, including its chief Persida Acosta, said a provision in the budget has been included which would prevent them from using their budget for their maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) to fund the forensic lab.

“These modifications in the President’s budget or the NEP (National Expenditure Program) have only one objective – to paralyze the PAO Forensic Laboratory and jeopardize its operations, depriving them the opportunity to assist the clients of the PAO,” PAO officials said.

They added, “You, Mr. President, are the only hope not only of PAO but of our millions of poor, downtrodden and oppressed clients who, more often than not, feel that justice remains to be elusive because of their dire financial state, which prevents them from fully presenting their cases in court.”

PAO officials argued that the defunding of the forensic laboratory is unconstitutional as it would deprive their clients access to legal assistance and would result in medical professionals working in the lab losing work without due process.

They also again insisted that the existence of the forensic laboratory is backed by law, as the 2018 General Appropriations Act allowed the Budget department to make minor staffing changes.

They said the Budget department had allowed them to add two medico-legal officers, two medical specialists, a dentist, a medical technologist, a nurse and a laboratory aide in their staff.

“Such change is necessarily needed to further the mandate of the PAO as the principal law office of the government in extending free legal assistance to indigent persons and to such other qualified persons, in criminal, civil, labor, administrative and other quasi-judicial case,” PAO officials said.

They also claimed that the existence of the PAO forensic laboratory is necessary for it to fulfill its mandate to investigate torture cases under the Anti-Torture Law.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo has said that Duterte will veto all unconstitutional provisions in the budget.

Move to block Dengvaxia probe?

Lawmakers in the minority bloc in the House and the Senate have questioned the existence of the PAO forensic laboratory, arguing that this is a duplication of the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) crime laboratory.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon vowed to move the ₱19.5-million budget for the PAO’s forensic office to the NBI.

But PAO officials said in their letter to Duterte that their forensic laboratory would help them challenge the findings of other government agencies without resorting to a private forensic experts.

“We cannot help but wonder whether the modifications introduced by the minority in the Congress is an act averse to the PAO’s and this administration’s efforts in giving justice to the Dengvaxia victims and impose liability upon the government officials responsible for the untimely deaths, illnesses, and exposure to the systemic risks of Dengvaxia, of their children,” they said.

Iloilo 1st District Rep. Janette Garin, who also served as Health secretary when Dengvaxia was first distributed, has also questioned the existence of PAO’s forensic laboratory, saying that it is not part of the agency’s mandate.

Garin also pointed out some inconsistencies in PAO’s findings with the findings of the crime laboratories of the NBI and the Philippine National Police.

The PAO forensic office insists on a direct link between the deaths of children who had been inoculated with Dengvaxia and the dengue vaccine — even if numerous other experts were unable to come to the same conclusion.

Health experts have also maintained that Dengvaxia is safe to use for people who have previously been infected with dengue. The dengue vaccine has been pulled out of shelves due to its manufacturer’s supposed failure to comply with government regulations, but not because it was found to be unsafe.

Acosta led the charge in prosecuting officials of the government and Dengvaxia’s manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur over the deaths of around a hundred children.

The Dengvaxia scare has been blamed by health officials for the sudden drop in immunization rates in the country, which has led to a measles outbreak and the reemergence of polio.

CNN Philippines Justice Correspondent Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.