Envoy calls dare to shed immunity

Czech diplomat ready to testify in Congress

CZECH Ambassador to Manila Josef Rychtar said he is ‘100 percent ready” to waive his diplomatic immunity and testify before Congress on the alleged attempt by the head of the Metro Rail Transit to extort $30 million from Czech company Inekon in exchange for a train supply contract.

In a television interview Monday evening, Rychtar also turned the tables on Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, who accused the ambassador of not cooperating in the department’s probe on the alleged involvement of MRT general manager Al Vitangcol III.

Rychtar made the remarks after Vitangcol dared him to waive his diplomatic immunity and after Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda cast doubts on his motives and suggested that he testify at the proper forum.

Rychtar said he had already reported the alleged extortion attempt to Abaya during a two-hour meeting on April 11, 2013, but to no avail.

The ambassador also expressed dismay at the slow pace of the separate probe being conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation.

“A year ago, I presented initial information to Abaya. I gave them [the NBI] every document that they asked before I left for my vacation,” he said.

“I came back at the end of September 2013, and I was surprised because the (previous meeting) seemed to be for nothing. They said I must bring an affidavit first before they can start the investigation,” the ambassa-dor added.

Rychtar said he already spoke with Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez, chairman of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability.

“I told him that I’m 100-percent ready to appear and to defend my story...I’m ready to go on invitation to Congress and to testify,” the ambassador said.

Rodriguez said this would be the first time, to his recollection, that an ambassador would testify before Congress as he raised concerns over Rychtar’s diplomatic immunity.

“I’ve been in Congress for 14 years and I cannot recall an incident where an ambassador testified before a committee. Even if he says something that is not true, we cannot charge him with contempt because he has diplomatic immunity,” Rodriguez said.

Observers said Rychtar’s unflinching position and willingness to testify indicated that he has the full support of the Czech government in exposing the alleged extortion attempt.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte described Rychtar’s recent pronouncement as a “good development.”

But Lacierda raised questions on the timing and motive of Rychtar’s efforts to revive the issue.

He also said the ambassador’s allegations might be a case of sour grapes.

On Tuesday, an opposition lawmaker accused the administration and the ruling Liberal Party (LP) of harassing the Czech ambassador.

“Malacanang should stop LP members from claiming that this issue is a harassment case against the ruling party, because as it is Ambassador Rychtar is the one being harassed now by Malacanang,” said House Sen-ior Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said.

Colmenares lambasted the Liberals for trying to “obscure the MRT extortion issue” by employing the defense used by politicians charged with corruption.

By questioning Rychtar’s motives, Colmenares said, the Liberals were essentially accusing the Czech ambassador of being part of a scheme to harass the ruling party ahead of the 2016 elections.

“This is a serious allegation which will further fuel the antagonism of the international community. We challenge those who say this to file charges against Ambassador Rychtar if they have evidence that he, a for-eigner, is interfering in our local politics, which is illegal under the Omnibus Election Code,” Colmenares said.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. denied that De Vera was a member of the Liberal Party but said he could answer the charges raised against him when he is summoned before the House investigation of the al-leged extortion attempt.

“I never heard of this De Vera identified as an LP leader or member. Who is he? Why would anybody deal with him? At any rate all them can repeat their stories and evidence at the House hearing,” Belmonte told the Manila Standard.

Other House leaders said Congress needed to hear all the facts behind the alleged extortion attempt so that it could pass laws to address such situations.

House Deputy Majority Leader Sherwin Tugna said this was apart from the filing of criminal charges against those found guilty of extortion.

But Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr. and House Deputy Majority Leader Jorge Banal of Quezon City said a House probe is no longer necessary.

“The Senate has already started its investigation and the President has also ordered the NBI to start its probe on the MRT issue. Let us just wait for the final conclusion of these investigations,” Barzaga said.

Banal said a House probe would only duplicate what the Senate had been doing.

On Sunday, Abaya cleared Vitangcol of administrative charges and blamed Rychtar for being uncooperative during the probe by not showing up when invited to shed light on his accusation that Vitangcol not only attempted to extort money but also tried to pressure Inekon into a joint venture with a Filipino firm run by his men.

On Friday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the NBI has already wrapped up its investigation, but the report is still being reviewed by the legal division.

Sources told the Manila Standard the NBI is likely to clear Vitangcol.

Rychtar said Vitangcol appears to be “protected” as the MRT head has not been sanctioned. “You can see that Vitangcol has a very firm position.... I think that he is covered. He is protected.”

Rychter said the extortion attempt took place on July 9, 2012.

He said Vitangcol, a businessman named Wilson de Vera who is a member of the President’s Liberal Party, and a certain M. de la Cruz, had dinner with Inekon Group board chairman Josef Husek and a certain Ine-kon executive named Haloun.

The ambassador said Vitangcol left after the dinner, while the rest of them headed to Rychtar’s residence to continue the discussion on the MRT project.

He said De Vera, whom Rychtar described as Vitangcol’s emissary, broached the $30 million grease money, which Husek said was too much.

Rychtar said De Vera made two phone calls, after which he lowered the amount to $2.5 million.

“Finally, the Czech company did not participate in the bidding process due to its unclear terms of reference and suspicious circumstances around the bidding process itself,” Rychtar said.

The government eventually awarded the P3.8-billion contract for 48 new MRT coaches to CNR Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co. of China. – With Maricel V. Cruz

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