Suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) director general Gerald Bantag sought Monday the inhibition of the Department of Justice’s panel of prosecutors conducting the preliminary investigation on the murder charges against him and several others.
The charges were in connection with the killings of veteran radio commentator Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa on October 3 and inmate Jun Villamor, the alleged middleman in the case.
Bantag, through lawyer Rocky Balisong, sought the inhibition of the DOJ prosecutors and the immediate transfer of the investigation of the murder charges before the Ombudsman, which he said had the primary jurisdiction over his client under Article 11, Section 13, paragraph 1 of the Constitution.
Bantag, while entering the DOJ gate, remarked in Filipino “Sabi nila nagtatago ako. Hindi naman. (They said I have been hiding. I wasn’t.)”
An indigenous Ibaloi from the Cordillera Region, Bantag was not present during the first hearing on the case on November 23 due to the wrong middle name in the subpoena issued against him.
Lapid was shot dead in Las Piñas City on October 3 while Villamor died at the New Bilibid Prison a couple of hours after the self-confessed gunman, identified by the authorities as Joel Escorial, appeared before a news conference with DOJ Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla and DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos.
An autopsy—the second conducted on the remains following the first by the NBI—by forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun showed the remains of Villamor to have a “history of asphyxia (and died) by plastic bag suffocation.”
Balisong said the provision of the Constitution gives the Ombudsman the power to investigate all cases committed by public officials.
Bantag’s camp also cited Section 15, in relation to Section 11 of Republic Act 6770 or the Ombudsman Act of 1989 which gives the Ombudsman the power to investigate cases falling within the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.
Apart from this, Balisong also accused the DOJ of being biased against his client, thus, warranting the inhibition of the DOJ prosecutors from conducting the preliminary investigation for the purpose of determining whether there is a probable cause to elevate the case for trial.
Bantag’s lawyer also cited the recent pronouncements of Remulla accusing the former BuCor official as the one who ordered the killing of Mabasa and Villamor.
According to the lawyer, the investigating prosecutors are under the control and supervision of the justice secretary.
Investigators said Bantag had a clear motive to order the murders.
In the case of Lapid, investigators pointed to Lapid’s continued exposé on irregularities allegedly committed by Bantag on his show “Lapid Fire” as the motive.
For Villamor’s death, authorities said the motive was to cover up the murder of Percy Lapid.
Remulla earlier said Lapid’s “Cinderella Man” story could have triggered Bantag to order his killing.
The DOJ secretary said it was narrated to him—who the narrator was he did not say in public—that Bantag skipped the graduation ceremony of the University of Perpetual Help for its student-inmates on September 9 at the NBP after learning that Lapid went to his house that day to examine and take pictures of his house and vehicles.
Remulla said the event was hugely significant for the BuCor for Bantag to be absent.
The DOJ said Bantag’s absence was an indication that the former BuCor chief was irate.
“I hope the investigating panel will study it very carefully because we have laid a very solid ground for them to inhibit from this case. Aside from the issue on impartiality, the issue on jurisdiction is a serious matter which should be considered by them,” Balisong said.
However, Balisong said his client was prepared to file his counter-affidavit on the murder charges before the panel in case it decides not to grant the motion.
Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Charlie Guhit said the submission of Bantag’s counter affidavit was held in abeyance pending the resolution of the motion to inhibit.
Guhit said the complainants were ordered to comment within seven days on the motion, after which, the panel will issue a resolution on the motion.
“The continuation of the preliminary investigation will be dependent on the resolution of the motion for inhibition,” he said.
During the preliminary investigation, Bantag’s camp also filed a written request for clearer copies of some of the documents submitted in support of the complaints.
Guhit said the panel had furnished the respondent with the documents he requested.
Lapid’s brother Roy Mabasa said his camp would oppose the motion of Bantag, which he said was only intended to delay the proceedings on the case.
“We will file our opposition by next week,” he said.
Bantag and BuCor deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta, who did not attend the hearing and was not represented by a lawyer, were charged as principals by inducement in the Lapid killing.
Also charged in the Percy Lapid killing as “principals by indispensable cooperation” were Bilibid inmates Denver Batungbakal Mayores, Alvin Cornista Labra, Aldrin Micosa Galicia, and Alfie Penaredonda.
For Villamor’s death, Bantag and Zulueta were charged as principals by inducements while PDLs Labra, Galicia, Mario Germones Alvarez, and Joseph Medel Georfo were charged as principals by indispensable cooperation, and PDLs Christam Dizon Ramac, Ricky Lamigo Salgado, Ronnie Pabustan de la Cruz and Joel Alog Reyes were charged as principals by direct participation.
The PDLs, according to Guhit, appeared in the preliminary investigation via video conferencing with the assistance of their respective counsel.