MANILA—Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II on Tuesday said placing someone under the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP) is the prerogative of his department.
“It is the right of anybody to do anything as long as it not against the law,” Aguirre said in response to Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales’ pronouncement to block pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles from being a state witness.
”But since the DOJ has the exclusive right to put a witness under the Witness Protection Program, we will exercise it if need be,” Aguirre noted.
Morales stressed that as far as the prosecution panel handling the plunder, graft and malversation charges against Napoles before the Sandiganbayan is concerned, they don’t find her qualified to become a state witness considering that she is one of the principal accused in the multi-billion peso scam.
”It’s up to them if they wish to reinvestigate. But as I said we are not bound by any findings over cases over which the Ombudsman has the final authority to determine whether or not there is probable cause. As the prosecution is concerned she is one of the principal alleged benefactors. Certainly the Office of Special Prosecutors (OSP) will block any attempt to make her state witness,” Morales told reporters in an ambush interview.
The OSP is under the Office of the Ombudsman.
Aguirre however disagreed, saying that the DOJ has the authority to make Napoles an state witness.
“All I can say is that everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion, we have the right to do things that we believe is right. But I believe that making, in the event that the DOJ consider making Janet Napoles a state witness, is a prerogative of us under the Witness Protection Program of the DOJ,” Aguirre said in an TV interview.
“As far as I know since there is no jurisprudence yet on this, if you file a case before the DOJ for preliminary investigation, we have the right to determine if one of the respondents will be put under the Witness Protection Program of the DOJ. In the event that they are objecting, then let the court decide,’ he added.
He explained that during the preliminary investigation of the case, there is concurrent jurisdiction between the DOJ and the Ombudsman but that if one of the parties is willing to be put under the WPP, then that is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the DOJ since the Ombudsman has no WPP program to speak of.
Though he stressed that placing Napoles under the WPP does not automatically make her a state witness, Aguirre explained that the DOJ can place her under provisional protection while her application, if there is one, and her affidavit is being evaluated and assessed whether she is qualified or not to become a full-pledged state witness.
“For us to consider a certain person to be out under the WPP, once you go to the DOJ and execute an affidavit detailing the events and that he or she want to file a case against these people, and please put me under your protection because my life is in danger, then we are going to do it,” the DOJ chief said.
Aguirre acknowledged that his stand differed with that of Morales but he insisted on his position adding that there is a possibility of a clash between the DOJ’s position on the matter with that of the Ombudsman.
“Well, it’s possible (clash). As a matter of fact, ang opinyon namin ni Ombudsman ay halos magkaiba nga,” Aguirre said adding that in such case, then the courts can come in to clarify the issue.
He said that the Ombudsman’s prerogative on the drafting of state witnesses only came when the DOJ after conducting a preliminary investigation on the case submitted it to the Ombudsman.
Prosecutors from the Ombudsman are handling the cases of Napoles before the anti-graft court though during the time of former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, then Justice Undersecretary Jose Justiniano was tapped by the Ombudsman to join the prosecution team in prosecuting the pork barrel related cases before the anti-graft court.
Justiniano was also designated by De Lima then to led the DOJ’s investigation on the alleged involvement of several lawmakers in the pork barrel controversy.
Earlier, Aguirre said that Napoles will remain in detention even if she becomes a state witness on the reinvestigation on the planned review of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) cases.
Aguirre said this will not affect her pending plunder cases, which are non-bailable, before before the Sandiganbayan.
Asked if Napoles could qualify as state witness in the possible cases that could emanate from the reinvestigation, Aguirre stressed that it would depend on what she has to say.
The DOJ Secretary believes that Napoles could be a credible government witness if she would be able to substantiate her testimonies with evidence.
“Depende sa sasabihin niyan (It depends on what she says). If coupled with documents then there is no reason why she should not be credible,” he pointed out.
The DOJ chief said that while several camps are pushing for Napoles to be state witness, she would have to meet the qualifications set by law – that she should not be the most guilty of the crime and that her testimony must be indispensable for the cases to stand.
He said he could only make an assessment of her eligibility once he reads her sworn statement.
”As far I know wala pang gingawa affidavit ang amin lang po dito function sa DOJ tatanggapin lang naming kung may bagong complaint siya imbestigahan under Preliminary investigation,” he noted.
Aguirre further pointed out that in cases of plunder or corruption involving a government official and a private individual, the former is considered the most guilty as per the ruling of the Supreme Court (SC).
“Based on a Supreme Court decision, it will be the government official who will be considered as the most guilty, because he is taking advantage of his public position,” he explained.
Last week, the Court of Appeals reversed a Makati City court decision which convicted Napoles and her brother Jojo Lim for serious illegal detention.