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Aquino appointee set to handle his Mamasapano cases

In this January 2015 photo, then President Benigno Aquino offers prayers for the slain SAF commandos at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan. The STAR

MANILA, Philippines — The Third Division of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan chaired by Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang was chosen by raffle to handle the criminal cases against former President Benigno Aquino III in connection with 2015 Mamasapano incident.

Tang and six other magistrates of the Sandiganbayan gathered Friday morning for the weekly raffle of recently filed cases at the court, including those against Aquino filed by the Office of the Ombudsman on Wednesday.

Tang, an appointee of Aquino, assured that her division will be fair in handling the latter's cases.

“We will just apply the rules as we have done in the past, irrespective of the personalities involved in the cases,” Tang told reporters after the raffle.

Tang said her appointment by Aquino “will never influence whatever action that the court will take in the case.”

“We will act objectively based on what is before the court,” Tang said.

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Tang was appointed by Aquino as an associate justice of the Sandiganbayan in 2012 and just after a year, was appointed as the presiding justice besting all the other senior magistrates of the anti-graft court.

Aside from Tang, the Third Division is composed of senior member Associate Justice Bernelito Fernandez and sitting member Sarah Jane Fernandez.

Bernelito Fernandez, a former Quezon City Regional Trial Court judge, was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte at the Sandiganbayan in December last year.

Sarah Jane Fernandez, meanwhile, is an appointee of Aquino. She is the chairperson of the court's Sixth Division, and is just serving as a “warm body” for the Third Division as Duterte has yet to fill in four vacant positions at the Sandiganbayan.

Aquino is facing one count each of violation of Section 3 (a) of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices and usurpation of official functions under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code.

Section 3 (a) of RA 3019 prohibits public official “to persuade, induce or influence another public officer to perform an act constituting a violation of rules and regulations duly promulgated by competent authority.”

The ombudsman recommended to the Sandiganbayan to set Aquino's bail bond at P30,000 for the graft case and P10,000 for the usurpation case.

The cases stemmed from Aquino's alleged act of allowing then suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima to participate in the planning and implementation of Oplan Exodus, a botched police operation aimed to neutralize Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman.

The operation resulted in the death of over 60 people including 44 members of the PNP Special Action Force.

Won't inhibit

Tang said there is no reason for her to inhibit from the cases amid speculations partiality for being indebted to Aquino.

“No. The court will never shirk from its responsibility to dispense justice. There are legal grounds for inhibition and having been appointed by the accused before is not one of the legal grounds for inhibition,” Tang said.

“All of us here are appointees of different presidents. We have more than just our gratefulness to those who appointed us – we have a sworn duty to render justice as justice should be dispensed without fear or favor,” she added.

Tang said her division will act “speedily” in determining if there is probable cause to conduct a full-blown trial of the cases and to order Aquino's arrest.

“If there is probable cause, the court will issue a warrant of arrest. Otherwise, if the court does not find the existence of probable cause, it has two options – one, it may require the prosecution to submit additional evidence that will warrant the existence of probable cause, and two the court may just dismiss the case,” Tang explained.

Duterte, as well as the Volunteer Against Crime and Corruption had earlier described the ombudsman's graft and usurpation cases against Aquino as “silly” and are bound to fail.

The VACC, representing the families of the SAF 44, maintained that Aquino, Purisima and former Special Action Force chief Getulio Napeñas Jr. should be charged with 44 counts of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide

The ombudsman had already charged Purima and Napeñas with graft and usurpation in December last year. The cases are pending before the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division.

Tang said her division will confer with the Fourth Division to study the possibility of consolidating the cases as they all stemmed from the Mamasapano incident.

RELATED: SAF 44 kin won't testify for ombudsman on cases vs Aquino

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