Sandigan court denies Napoles transfer to WPP custody
A Sandiganbayan division has denied the plea of alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles to be released from detention and transferred to the custody of the government’s witness protection program.
In a four-page resolution, the court’s First Division pointed out that Napoles is “presently under detention for a lawful cause” as it already denied her bail petition in connection with the P224.5-million plunder case of former Senator Bong Revilla.
Her protective custody under the witness protection program would be “contrary to the clear and express import” of Article XI, Section 1 of the 2012 implementing rules and regulations of the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act.
The provision reads: “The Program shall not take into protective custody a witness who is under detention for any lawful cause. However, it shall direct the custodian of the witness to take necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of the witness.”
The court pointed out: “Notably, the said provision does not admit of any exception. Verily, the denial of the instant motion is warranted under the premises.”
It gave more weight to the argument raised by prosecutors of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The resolution, dated April 5, was penned by Associate Justice Efren N. de la Cruz and concurred in by Associate Justices Geraldine Faith A. Econg and Edgardo M. Caldona.
The Sandiganbayan’s move affects only the issue of Napoles’ custody, not necessarily the validity of the government’s plan to use her as a state witness in future pork barrel scam cases that have yet to reach the court.
In her request for the transfer of her custody, Napoles cited the Department of Justice’s Feb. 27 approval of her provisional admission into the witness protection program.
She also claimed to be entitled to be housed in a secure facility while she faces alleged intimidation and threats to her life inside the detention cell at Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City; for one, her whereabouts are known to the public.
The denial of Napoles’ plea in one of the three divisions that ordered her detention puts into question whether any favorable move by the Third and Fifth Divisions could still be enforced. Usually, defendants have to secure the permission of all divisions handling their cases.
As of posting time, the Third and Fifth Divisions, which handles the P172.8-million and P183.8-million plunder cases of former Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada, have yet to issue their resolutions on Napoles’ motion.
While the Ombudsman has clarified in the past that Napoles’ admission should not affect the currently pending cases, recently-resigned Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II had expressed plans to use her to build up new cases.
This sparked fears that Napoles would be use as a tool to harass the critics of the Duterte administration.
Aguirre’s recently appointed replacement Menardo Guevarra said on Sunday that he would “review [the] previous DOJ actions on Napoles.”
Napoles is accused of running a network of fraudulent nongovernment organizations used to divert the Priority Development Assistance Fund allocations of several legislators, who in turn allegedly earned kickbacks.
She has been detained since August 2013, after being charged with the illegal detention of her employee and scam whistleblower Benhur Luy. First detained at the Makati City Jail, she was immediately transferred to Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa City, Laguna.
After being charged with plunder alongside the three opposition senators, the Sandiganbayan ordered Napoles’s transfer to Camp Bagong Diwa in July 2014. Then, the Makati City Regional Trial Court convicted Napoles of Luy’s illegal detention in April 2015 and ordered her to serve her 40-year sentence at the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong City.
The Court of Appeals overturned Napoles’ conviction by the Makati RTC, with the Duterte administration’s support in May 2017. No longer a convict, the Sandiganbayan soon ordered her transfer back to Camp Bagong Diwa, where she has stayed since.
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