Manhunt on for 13 co-accused in pork

Bong arraigned today; court bars TV coverage

POLICE launched a massive manhunt Wednesday for 13 co-accused in the plunder and graft cases against Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. in connection with the pork barrel scam.

The chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the national police, Director Benjamin Magalong, said tracker teams were deployed to determine the whereabouts of the respondents.

“We have teams looking for the other accused,” Magalong said, identifying Pauline Therese Mary C. Labayen, John Raymund De Asis, Romulo Relevo, Antonio Y. Ortiz, Emmanuel Alexis G. Sevidal, Sofia D. Cruz, Evelyn Sugcang, Ronald John Lim, Myla Ogerio, Laarni A. Uy, Allan A. Javellana, Maria Julie A. Villaralvo-Johnson and Ofelia E. Ordonez.

Magalong said the CIDG submitted on Tuesday an update on who among the co-accused of the senators in the plunder and graft cases have and have not posted bail.

In the update, Senior Supt. Eliseo Tam Rasco said only 35 of the 48 accused have posted bail. Of the 35, 19 were Revilla’s co-accused while 16 were Estrada’s.

Some of the co-accused were charged in both cases.

Estrada on Monday yielded to Magalong after the Sandiganbayan found probable cause to file plunder and graft charges against him.

Earlier, Revilla turned himself in after the anti-graft court issued a warrant for his arrest.

Both Estrada and Revilla are detained at the PNP custodial center in Camp Crame.

Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam, has been detained since last year on a separate charge of serious illegal detention filed against her by her former employee Benhur Luy, who turned state witness.

On Wednesday, the anti-graft court ruled out television coverage of Revilla’s scheduled arraignment today and barred ambush interviews with the detained senator.

Pandemonium broke loose last week when members of the media scrambled to get comments from Revilla, who went to the Sandiganbayan to surrender.

“We assure the public that they would not be deprived of their right to information. The media would be given access to all proceedings as far as the three senators and all other cases in the Sandiganbayan are concerned,” Martires said.

“But we also have to consider proper decorum and security protocol in our courts. We have to maintain order at all times and especially during the proceedings,” he said.

Under the guidelines, five accredited reporters from newspapers, radio and TV will be allowed inside the court but they are barred from bring in tape recorders, mobile phones, cameras and even watches.

TV crews can bring in their cameras to record video but are barred from taking audio recordings of the proceedings.

A designated room with a TV monitor that records the ongoing proceedings would be assigned to the reporters but they re not allowwed to tap into the monitor to broadcast live or send the signal to the Internet.

To prevent ambush interviews, Martires said a designated interview and press conference area would be made available to all camps. The accused, the prosecution and the witnesses would be directed to this area after the court proceedings.

The Sandiganbayan justices will not be available for interviews.

The Sandiganbayan said respondents still unaccounted for can be considered fugitives from the law if they remain at large 10 days after the arrest warrants are issued.

The Office of the Ombudsman on Wednesday sought to amend the case information against Estrada, Revilla and Senator Juan Ponce Enrile to emphasize that it was the senators who amassed ill-gotten wealth in connivance with their co-accused public officers and private individuals.

The prosecution said it wanted to omit the phrase that the scam enabled “Napoles to misappropriate the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) proceeds for her personal gain.”

“The accused are not yet arraigned, hence, the [information] may still be amended in form and substance without leave of court,” a memo from Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said.

“The prosecutors deemed it wise to amend them to minimize, if not obviate, objections therein by certain accused which may cause undue delay in the proceedings,” the memo added.

The three opposition senators facing plunder charges have asked the Supreme Court to junk the petition of the Office of the Ombudsman to create special courts to try the pork barrel cases, on the ground that doing so would violate their right to a fair, impartial and independent trial.

Enrile said the creation of a special division to try the pork cases would “subvert a carefully crafted system of assuring that those who preside over a case are, and appear to be, independent and impartial.”

“Worse, considering the highly charged and biased environment prevailing in regard these cases, and that the request is made by the Ombudsman, the impression that may be created is that the Supreme Court has now joined the clamor for the condemnation and punishment of those involved in the cases,” Enrile said through his lawyer, Estelito Mendoza, in a four-page comment.

Revilla said there is no substantial distinction to classify the pork barrel cases as a class of their own warranting separate treatment from other cases in the anti-graft court.

Revilla said the special courts would violate the constitutional clause on equal protection that protects ever person against intentional and arbitrary discrimination.

Estrada also invoked similar grounds in opposing the creation of special divisions.

In his four-page comment filed through lawyer Jose Flaminiano, Estrada said that the three regular divisions of Sandiganbayan to which the cases have been assigned “are all capable to hear and try the cases; thus, obviating any need to create special divisions.”

The Sandiganbayan has already opposed Ombudsman’s request in its comment filed last Monday, saying “there is no compelling reason or imperative need to create a special division or divisions.”

The magistrates said the creation of special divisions would give priority to the pork barrel cases to the detriment of other cases pending before the five divisions of the Sandiganbayan.

They also said creating special divisions would create the impression of bias against the accused.

Richard Cambe, former chief of staff of Revilla and his co-accused, took the opposite view and supported the creation of special courts.

Also on Wednesday, lawmakers welcomed President Benigno Aquino III’s openness to the idea of house arrest for Enrile, who is 90.

But Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz said it is the court, not President Aquino, which will decide where Enrile is detained.

Speaking during an interview with reporters on board the PAL chartered flight from Tokyo to Hiroshima, President Aquino said he would not mind if the courts would give humanitarian considerations to Enrile once he is detained for alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam. – With Rio N. Araja and Maricel V. Cruz

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