Remulla cites 2 grounds: being law enforcer and tagged as mastermind
Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of placing suspended prisons chief Gerald Bantag under the government’s witness protection program.
“Law enforcement personnel are not qualified,” Remulla told Manila Standard in a text message.
The Justice chief added that anyone tagged as the alleged mastermind of a case cannot be considered a state witness.
Remulla earlier said the department saw no evidence that anyone higher than Bantag was responsible for the Oct. 3 murder of radio commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa.
“I was hoping I could point to other groups—the drug lords and not Bantag—but these facts came out,” he said.
Meanwhile, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said authorities have “practically” solved the killing of Mabasa in 17 days, but added the investigation into the crime should continue.
Arriving in Cambodia for the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits, Mr. Marcos said the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation had done a good job on the case.
“By the way, I’d like to remind everybody this case… was practically solved in 17 days. Okay? So, I think we can say that the investigating bodies have done a good job,” the President said.
“They’ll keep doing a good job until we come to the actual final, conclusion of this investigation,” he added.
Mabasa’s brother Roy, a journalist, urged Bantag to answer the allegations against him and to provide more information on the case.
Roy said Bantag could even qualify for the government’s Witness Protection Program should he divulge more names related to the case.
The police and the NBI have filed murder charges against Bantag and BuCor Deputy Security Officer Ricardo Zulueta before the Department of Justice.
They are also accused of killing an inmate, Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña, who allegedly acted as a middleman and recruited the gunman, Joel Escorial, to kill Mabasa.
On Wednesday, Remulla said Bantag was furious about the video expose Mabasa posted, tagging the prisons chief as the “Cinderella Man” who owed numerous vehicles and who was building a mansion in Laguna.
Remulla said Bantag was livid when he learned that Mabasa went to his property in Laguna to take photos of his alleged wealth.
He was so upset, in fact, that he skipped the Sept. 9 University of Perpetual Help graduation ceremonies for inmates at the New Bilibid Prison and did not report for work that day.
Remulla said the expose was posted on Sept. 15, then “on Sept. 17, the plot started, and everything went into motion.”
A few weeks later, Mabasa was shot and killed in Las Piñas City on Oct. 3 by Escorial, who later tagged a certain “Bantag” as being involved in the murder for hire.
“You can see that really, there’s a string that ties everything together,” Remulla said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Remulla said he believed Bantag and Zulueta are still in the country.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) also said they received information that the two have not left the country.
The department is seeking a hold departure order against the two BuCor officials.
Mabasa claimed in one of his commentaries on his program “Lapid Fire” aired over DWBL’s 1242 that Bantag owned numerous vehicles and was building a mansion in an exclusive subdivision in Laguna, an allegation that the suspended BuCor chief has denied.
Remulla urged Bantag and Zulueta to answer the complaint at the DOJ preliminary investigation.
“They should file counter affidavits. That is due process under our law, and they should respect the law. They are law enforcers and yet they are like that. No drama here. Face it like a man. If you’re not man enough to face it, then what are you? Too much drama,” Remulla said.
Earlier, NBI supervising agent Eugene Javier said they were not discounting the possibility that there may be a more powerful mastermind behind Bantag, although he said they had no evidence of this.
Remulla, on the other hand, said he believed there was nobody else above Batang—and that speculation that former President Rodrigo Duterte was a person of interest was “far-fetched.”
The Philippine National Police, too, said Duterte was not a person of interest, even though Mabasa was a critic of the former president.
Javier also played down differences between the NBI autopsy of Palaña and a second autopsy conducted by forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun.
The NBI autopsy said the inmate’s body showed “no apparent sign of external physical injury” while Fortun said he died of “asphyxia by plastic bag suffocation.”
“As to the two autopsy reports, we don’t really see any inconsistencies. It’s just that the NBI autopsy report showed that the cause of death is undetermined. Just because it’s reflected in the autopsy report that the cause of death is undetermined, that does not rule out any foul play,” he said.
“So, we’re relying on that, on that fact, that we can still use the autopsy report even if there are minor differences such as maybe Dr. Fortun has found methamphetamine in the body of Jun Villamor. It does not negate the findings that we arrived at in our investigation,” he said.
Former senator Leila De Lima, detained at the PNP Custodial Center on what she says are trumped-up drug charges, said investigators should vigorously pursue the alias “Tanda” who was linked to the murder of Mabasa.
She said the probe should not stop at Bantag and Zulueta.
“They should pursue the identity of the person known only as ‘Tanda.’ There is still the question of whether Bantag was determined enough to issue the command himself without being ordered by someone more powerful and more brazen than him,” De Lima said.
She said “Tanda” cannot be “Bantag” himself—an assertion that the NBI had made.
“He is not yet that old to be called ‘Tanda,’” De Lima said.