MANILA -- The Department of Justice (DOJ) certainly earned its keep this 2017, as it unwaveringly conducted investigations left and right in line with its mandate to find out the truth behind cases and bring perpetrators to justice.

A tale of two drug cases

In February, the DOJ panel of prosecutors issued resolution charging former DOJ Secretary and Senator Leila De Lima of three counts of drug charges before the Muntinlupa City regional trial court (RTC) in connection with her alleged involvement in the proliferation of illegal drugs at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

De Lima was charged for violation of Section 5 (sale and trading of illegal drugs) in relation to Section 3 (jj); Section 26 (b), and Section 28 (criminal liability of government officials and employees) of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

The DOJ panel of prosecutors composed of Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Peter Ong, Assistant State Prosecutor Editha Fernandez, and Senior Assistant City Prosecutors Alexander Ramos, Leilia Llanes and Evangeline Viudez-Canobas issued a 52-page resolution dated February 14 approved by Prosecutor General Victor Sepulveda on the consolidated criminal complaints filed by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC); the NBI; former NBI deputy directors Reynaldo Esmeralda and Ruel Lasala; and high-profile Bilibid inmate and self-confessed drug trader Jaybee Sebastian.

The three separate cases against De Lima, which accused her of receiving millions from illegal drug trade in New Bilibid Prison, were raffled off to RTC branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero, branch 205 Judge Amelia Fabros-Corpuz and branch 206 Judge Patria Manalastas-De Leon.

The first count in branch 204 also included De Lima's former driver and lover Ronnie Dayan and National Bureau of Investigation deputy director Rafael Ragos as her co-accused.

On the other hand, De Lima is joined by her nephew Jose Adrian Dera in the second count in branch 205.

Lastly, the third count in branch 206 included former Bureau of Corrections chief Franklin Bucayu, his alleged bagman Wilfredo Elli, high-profile inmate Jaybee Sebastian, De Lima's former bodyguard Jonel Sanchez, Dayan and Dera also as accused.

Judge Guerrero issued the arrest warrant on Feb. 23, which ordered De Lima's detention at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center based on the commitment order it has issued.

Dayan, meanwhile, was detained at the Muntinlupa City Jail.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the cases filed against De Lima are not politically motivated.

"(The) cases filed against Senator de Lima are all criminal in nature. Some of these cases involved illegal drugs. They are not politically motivated," Aguirre said in a statement.

With this, the DOJ chief stressed that De Lima should not refer to herself as a "political prisoner" as the raps against her have nothing to do with her political stand.

"Drug cases do not involve one's political beliefs. It involves one's choice to be involved in illegal drugs," he said adding that he inhibit himself from the raps filed against the lady senator.

The DOJ Secretary also insisted that the Muntinlupa RTC has original and exclusive jurisdiction over the three cases filed, regardless of the high position of De Lima as respondent.

”On the matter of jurisdiction, it is the RTC that has original and exclusive jurisdiction over the three cases, regardless of the high position of the respondent. Trading in illegal drugs has no connection with the performance of her duties as Secretary of Justice,” he explained.

Aguirre also cited that De Lima and his other predecessors in the agency have done the same during their term when they prosecuted several high-ranking officials such as former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos and Commissioner Alfredo Benipayo and former Zamboanga del Norte Rep. Romeo Jalosjos.

On the other hand, the DOJ is dismissed drug charges filed against former Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon and other former officials of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) over the smuggling of PHP6.4-billion shabu shipment into the country last May.

In a resolution, the DOJ found no probable cause to indict Faeldon and several others for numerous criminal charges filed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in connection with the seized shabu shipment.

Dismissed were PDEA's complaint for conspiracy to import illegal drugs and protecting or coddling of drug traffickers under Republic Act 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act), negligence and tolerance under Article 208 of the Revised Penal Code, and corrupt practices of public officers under Section 3 of R.A. 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act).

The DOJ held that PDEA failed "to state with clarity the acts or omission supposedly committed by the above-named BOC respondents that would constitute violation of the offense charged."

However, the DOJ panel found probable cause to push for the trial of the importers, brokers and other individuals involved in the shipment.

The panel recommended no bail in the drug importation case file before the Valenzuela regional trial court for violation of Section 4, in relation to Section 26 (a) of Republic Act No. 9165.

The DOJ’s dismissal of the case against Faeldon and other BOC officials was widely criticized by several senators who even conducted a probe on the matter as well as some groups who are critical of the present administration.

Albuera Mayor slay: From murder to homicide

The DOJ also issued the resolution last May downgrading from murder to homicide the charges filed against several policemen involved in the killing of Albuera, Leyte mayor Rolando Espinosa and fellow inmate Raul Yap inside the sub-provincial jail in November 2016.

Aguirre set aside the resolution issued by a DOJ panel of prosecutors which recommended the filing of two counts of murder charges against members of the Philippine National Police-Crime Investigation and Detection Group of Region 8 headed by Superintendent Marvin Marcos, Senior Inspector (SI) Deogracia Pedong Diaz, SPO2 Benjamin Layague Dacallos, PO3 Norman Tiu Abellanosa, PO1 Jerlan Sadia Cabiyaan, PCINSP Calixto Cabardo Canillas, PINSP Lucresito Adana Candelosas, SPO2 Antonio Romangca Docil, SPO1 Mark Christian Castillo Cadilo, PO2 John Ruel Baldevia Doculan, PO2 Jaime Pacuan Bacsal.

Four other police officers were charged for murder of Espinosa - Superintentdent Santi Noel Matira, Chief Inspector Leo Daio Laraga, Senior Police Officer 4 Melvin Caboyit and Police Officer 3 Johnny Abuda Ibanez - while four others for murder of Yap - Senior Inspector Fritz Bioco Blanco, Senior Police Officer 4 Juanito Duarte, Police Officer 2 Lloyd Ortiguesa and Police Officer 1 Bernard Orpilla.

Abellanosa, Laraga and witness Paul Olendan were also indicted for two counts of Article 129 of Revised Penal Code for maliciously obtaining search warrants.

The DOJ filed the case before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Baybay, Leyte after the panel of prosecutors found that the killings of Espinosa and Yap inside the Baybay jail were done with treachery and the respondents used stealth to carry out the raid.

Bolstering the fight vs. terrorism, fraud

The Justice Department is also one with other government agencies in fighting terrorism as it has filed 295 counts of inciting to rebellion charges against Karen Aizha Hamidon, the widow of a slain terrorist leader for allegedly recruiting both foreigners and Filipinos to join terrorist groups Maute and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the their fight to occupy Marawi City in various social media applications.

The DOJ explained that Hamidon posted 295 messages inciting others to commit rebellion on the social media application Telegram and WhatsApp.

Also this year, the DOJ issued a resolution ordering the filing of criminal charges against officials of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and Smartmatic officials for violation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

The case stemmed from the unauthorized alteration of the script of the transparency server during the canvassing of votes during the May 9, 2016 national and local elections.

The DOJ found probable cause to charge Smartmatic personnel Marlon Garcia, Head of the Technical Support Team and his subordinates Neil Baniqued and Mauricio Herrera as well as Comelec Information Technology experts Rouie Peñalba, Nelson Herrera and Frances Mae Gonzales with violation of Sections 4(a)(1), (3) and (4) of R.A. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Section 4 (a)(1) of R.A. 10175 penalizes the access of a computer system without any authority while Section 3 penalizes the intentional and reckless altering of computer data. Section 4, on the other hand, penalizes the act of hindering or interfering with the functions of a computer and computer network by inputting, deleting and altering computer data and programs, without any right or authority.

Aguirre reversed the September 28, 2016 resolution issued by the Office of the City Prosecutor of Manila which dismissed the case that was initiated by former Abakada Rep. Jonathan Dela Cruz.

Shedding light on Atio hazing, teen slays

Meanwhile, the DOJ also conducted a preliminary investigation on the fatal hazing of University of Sto. Tomas (UST) law freshman Horacio Tomas “Atio” Castillo III.

The DOJ is expected to release its resolution on the case soon.

The Manila Police District filed its complaint before the Department of Justice (DOJ) on September 25, while, Atio’s parents submitted a supplemental complaint on October 9.

Atio died after undergoing initiation rites at the Aegis Juris library on September 17 and was already declared dead when he was brought to the Chinese General Hospital.

The MPD named 18 respondents in its complaint for murder, robbery and in violation of Republic Act 8049, the Anti-Hazing Law.

Meanwhile, Atio’s parents named 31 respondents who are accused of murder, robbery and violating the Anti-Hazing Law.

The parents also charged 23 respondents of committing four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The DOJ also wrapped up its preliminary investigation on the criminal complaints filed against 16 cops over the killing of student Kian delos Santos in Caloocan City on August 16.

Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Tofel G. Austria, Assistant State Prosecutor Amanda L. Garcia and Associate Prosecutor Attorney Moises Acayan , prosecution panel which conducted the preliminary investigation on the complaint filed by Kian’s parents Saldy and Lorenza through Public Attorney's Office (PAO) filed murder under Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC); violation of domicile under Article 128 of the RPC; torturing a minor resulting to death in violation of Republic Act 9745, also known as the Anti-Torture Law; and planting of evidence under Section 29 of Republic Act 9165, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

Four policemen were initially named as respondents, namely, dismissed Caloocan City Police Community Precinct 7 commander, Chief Inspector Ameor Cerillo; PO 3 Arnel Oares; PO1 Jerwin Cruz; and PO1 Jeremias Pereda.

Later on, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) which represented Kian’s parents as legal counsel added 12 more names including PO2 Arnel Canezares, PO2 Diony Corpuz, PO2 Fernan Cano, PO1 Reynaldo Dan Blanco Jr., PO1 Silverio Garcia Jr., PO1 Ronald Herrera, PO1 Myrldon Yagi, PO1 Christian Joy Aguilar, PO1 Ceferino Paculan, PO1 J-Rossillini Lorenzo, PO1 Erwin Romeroso and PO1 Ferdinand Claro.

Acayan said the case has been submitted for resolution.

The DOJ has also probed the killing of teenagers Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman last August.

Arnaiz, 19 and De Guzman, 14 who were neighbors in Cainta went missing on August 18.

The Caloocan City police claimed Arnaiz died during a shootout last August 18 when he resisted arrest and fired his handgun at chasing cops following the taxi robbery committed against Bagcal.

Arnaiz’s body was found at Ezekiel Funeral Homes weeks after his disappearance.

Several policemen have been charged before the DOJ in connection with the incident.

Digging deep into DAP, Dengvaxia mess

In line with the Duterte administration's continuing campaign against corruption, Aguirre commenced the investigation on the questionable multibillion-peso Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

The probe to be conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is aimed at determining whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant the filing of malversation charges against former President Aquino, former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and other former government officials over the matter.

Aguirre ordered the NBI to conduct the probe based on the complaint filed by the Coalition for Investigation and Prosecution represented by Greco Belgica.

The investigation was ordered following the group’s submission of documents last September showing the alleged misuse of DAP funds, which the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional.

The DOJ also recently launched a probe and case build-up on the controversial PHP3.5-billion dengue vaccine project of the Department of Health (DOH) that reportedly put at risk the health of children who do not have prior infection of the disease but were given shots of the vaccine.

Aguirre also tasked the NBI to lead the investigation that would determine possible culpabilities of some individuals involved in the program.

Finding facts on ex-poll chief’s ‘hidden wealth,’ road scam

Also subjected to a probe was former Commission on Elections chair Andres Bautista who resigned from his post last October following accusations from his estranged wife Patricia Paz that he has accumulated an estimated PHP1 billion in ill-gotten wealth.

Aguirre has tapped the Presidential Commission on Good Government, an attached agency of the DOJ, which the Duterte administration is planning to abolish, to look into the possible anomalies that happened during Bautista's stint.

The NBI has also been directed to conduct a case build-up against Bautista.

Probers are looking into possible cases of money laundering and violations of Republic Act 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act) if evidence would be gathered against the former poll chief.

Aguirre also order NBI to investigate the road scam from whistleblower Roberto Catapang Jr. that the syndicate involved in the scam submits fake land titles of non-existent owners to allow them to claim from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) just compensation for the expropriation of lands which will be occupied in various government road projects.

Catapang has already been placed under the Witness Protection Program (WPP).

Those who would be found liable could be prosecuted for committing crimes under Republic Act no. 3019 otherwise known as the “Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act”.

The criminal syndicate purportedly submitted fake titles in the name of non-existent persons to allow them to claim from DPWH just compensation from the expropriation of land supposedly occupied by government projects.

Catapang said Eldon Cruz, brother-in-law of former President Aquino, had purportedly endorsed the release of payments for the supposed bogus RROW claims.

Catapang who hails from Gen. Santos City said he joined the syndicate back in 2009 but left the group.

He said since then the syndicate collected PHP8.7 billion from around 300 bogus RROW claims in Gen. Santos City.

Catapang said the properties were covered by specious land titles and other documents which he and other members of their group had manufactured in connivance with corrupt government employees.

He, however, admitted that he never met Cruz nor saw him speak with public officials to help facilitate multimillion-peso transactions at the DPWH and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Abad and former DPWH Secretary Singson are among those who are being investigated and have been included in the lookout bulletin of the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

Aguirre said the allegations in the sworn statement of Catapang including the amount taken from government coffers, are serious allegations that should be looked into in line with the President Rodrigo Duterte’s directive to wage war on corruption, then and now.

A scheme of hope for ‘good inmates’

Aguirre said the uniform manual bolsters the reformation aspect of our justice system.

“It harmonizes the policies and the interpretation of the law on the computation of Good Conduct Time Allowances (GCTA) and other time allowances under R.A. No. 10592, Aguirre said.

“Uniformity eliminates fragmentation and it imposes order amidst confusions. Unity is essential for the effective administration of justice in all of its aspects,” Aguirre added.

The departments of Justice and Interior and Local Government launched the first uniform guideline that would decongest jails and prisons through standardizing the computation of "good conduct" and specify time allowances and service of persons deprived of liberty (PDL).

Justice Undersecretary Reynante Orceo, chairman of the DOJ-DILG joint committee, said the Uniform Manual on Time Allowance and Service of Sentence would be used by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), which is under DILG, and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), an attached agency of the DOJ.

Orceo said jail authorities expect a 20 percent decrease in the population of inmates, as credits for their "good conduct" would be properly computed, pushing for the reduction of their jail terms.

The uniform manual was created pursuant to Republic Act 10592, an act that amended several provisions of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).

The manual stresses the law authorizing credit of preventive imprisonment and the revision of good conduct time allowance of PDLs.

The law also allows the BuCor Director General, the BJMP Chief, and wardens of provincial, district, municipal and city jails to grant time allowances for good conduct, studying, teaching or mentoring, and loyalty.

“The purpose is really to, well the decongestion is the effect that we’ll have if we have this uniform manual. It’s actually for the benefit of persons deprived of liberty that eventually had been convicted and they will lessen their designated sentence,” Orceo added.

He said training would be conducted for the local jails "on how to compute and how to give time allowances to persons deprived of liberty.”

“We want to have a unification, a uniform [process], and we want to help and want on to train the local jail because, although the law mandated the local to also give time allowances, they still not implementing it for some reason they don’t have the knowledge and the capabilities,” he explained.

Orceo added that copies of the manual would be distributed to local courts.

Prior to the creation of the manual, Orceo said that the BuCor, BJMP, and local courts had different approaches in giving time allowances to PDLs.

“So what happened in the process is we have a dysfunctional administration of justice that is detrimental to the person deprived of liberty,” he said.

“You can just imagine the BJMP has a different computation and it's not yet automatically credited when the persons are convicted and transferred to the Bureau of Corrections,” he added.

The BJMP handles jail facilities that detain persons facing trial, while the BUCOR oversees penal colonies where convicted individuals serve time.

A tough year ahead: Bato is next BuCor chief

Aguirre welcomed President Duterte's decision to appoint Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Dir. Gen. Ronald Dela Rosa as the next head of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor).

BuCor is an attached agency of the DOJ.

“Definitely I support his appointment and I know that his stint as CPNP (chief PNP) will be very useful in addressing the problems in the BuCor. I was consulted several months ago on his forthcoming appointment as BuCor Chief. I wholeheartedly agreed and supported it,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre added that he already endorsed the appointment of three mistahs (batchmates) of Dela Rosa as Deputy Directors of BuCor namely retired police generals Valfrie G. Tabian, currently BuCor officer-in-charge, Melvin Ramon G. Buenafe and Gen. Heriberto O. Olitoquit.

BuCor’s operating units include New Bilbid Prison in Muntinlupa CIty, Abuyog Penal Colony in Leyte, Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City, Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm in Occidental Mindoro, San Ramon Prison and Penal Farm in Zamboanga City and the Davao Prison and Penal Farm.

Dela Rosa is set to retire on January 21 next year, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56 for police officers.

Duterte, however, said he will extend dela Rosa’s term.

BuCor, PDEA team up vs drugs

Aguirre also welcomes the renewed partnership of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and BuCor to curb illegal drug activities inside government prison facilities and penal farms.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. As a matter of fact, it is good. We all know that before President Rodrigo Duterte took office around 70 to 75 percent of illegal drugs in the country are cooked at the national penitentiary,” Aguirre said.

PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino and BuCor Officer-In-Charge Valfrie Tabian signed a memorandum of agreement at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, aimed at continuing cooperation and enhancing organized and systematic implementation of Republic Act 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, particularly inside correctional institutions.

According to Aquino, the MOA is an extension of the previous agreement between the two agencies signed on March 25, 2015, except for the inclusion of additional provisions prescribing PDEA to secure its own office inside the BuCor’s jurisdiction, to effectively address trafficking and other drug-related activities.

Aside from the MOA signing, the PDEA Liaison and Coordinating Office was also inaugurated inside the NBP.

Aquino said the office will have a canine unit so that they can conduct a 24-hour PDEA visibility as well as perform regular greyhound operations in a bid to finally get rid of drug proliferation inside the NBP.

He added that BuCor personnel are also expected to lend assistance in the day-to-day operations of PDEA office inside the NBP.

The PDEA chief noted that despite rigorous security measures in place, illegal drug trade remains prevalent in the NBP, highlighting the necessity to "establish (PDEA's) own liaison and coordinating office based inside NBP premises to address rapidly the immediate concern of possible entry of drug contraband."

The MOA ensures intelligence-sharing and joint investigation efforts in the conduct of anti-drug operations within jail premises under the jurisdiction of the BuCor.

“Under the said agreement, PDEA is also authorized to conduct greyhound operations inside BuCor correctional facilities pursuant to the standard operating procedures,” Aquino said.

Prior to the agreement, PDEA and BuCor also created a joint manual of operations last year to provide a synchronized conduct of search and seizure of dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals and drug paraphernalia in all BuCor prisons and penal farms. (PNA)