Justice chief creates fact-finding body to probe cover-up on Garci case

- Jose Rodel Clapano -
Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has formed a five-member fact-finding committee to investigate how former election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano slipped out of the country last month and to find out who helped him.

Opposition leaders charge that the Arroyo administration was involved in Garcillano’s disappearance.

They have demanded to know how Garcillano was able to slip away and have asked Immigration and air transport chiefs to go on leave until the conspiracy allegations are cleared.

Bureau of Immigration (BI) chief Alipio Fernandez, who had earlier denied accusations that he was involved in a cover-up, said immigration officers found to be involved could face administrative and criminal charges.

He said he is ready to take responsibility if warranted by the justice department investigation.

Gonzalez said the probe would focus on immigration personnel because his department and the immigration bureau have no jurisdiction over the Air Transportation Office, which has also come under fire from the opposition.

The ATO is under the supervision of the Department of Transportation and Communications.

"I have discussed this with Commissioner Alipio Fernandez. We both agree that this issue of the supposed flight of Garcillano should be investigated only insofar as Immigration is concerned because we have no jurisdiction over the ATO and other agencies. Our only concern is who, if at all, from within the BI assisted or facilitated the exit of Garcillano," Gonzalez said, adding that those who helped the former elections commissioner would be prosecuted.

Gonzalez believes Garcillano did not leave the country through Ninoy Aquino International Airport because there would be a departure card and other evidence recording his travel.

"If he takes a private airline, he should have a departure card which is in the custody of the BI. And also it is at the departure point where the watch list, as well as the hold departure orders, are indicated," Gonzalez continued.

"But if Garcillano was able to exit by a private aircraft, the responsibility belongs to the ATO. All aircraft must clear with the ATO. Even on the matter of flight path, it has to be cleared with the airport tower. That’s ATO," he said.

Fernandez has formed a panel to investigate how Garcillano left the country without a trace. They have five working days to release their findings and recommendations.

"We are doing all the possible, necessary actions so we can trace Garcillano," Fernandez said. "At the same time, we are (investigating) the trail of how Garcillano was able to leave without going through immigration."

Singapore’s government confirmed that Garcillano arrived there on July 14, but left shortly afterward for an unspecified country.

Media reports say he apparently went to London, then took a connecting flight to another country. There are also claims that he went into hiding in Malaysia or another Southeast Asian country.

Fernandez said the probe would include checking the possible involvement of Immigration personnel, pilots and private aircraft operators.

Officials have asked Interpol for assistance in tracking down Garcillano, he said.

Garcillano is believed to have flown from Subic to Singapore aboard a Subic Air jet on July 14, but the private airline denies it flew the former election official.

"We must identify the owner of the private aircraft involved. Then we will see, did that aircraft have clearance to fly? The owner of the aircraft may face cancellation of his franchise if it is proven that he violated regulations of the ATO," Gonzalez said.

Fernandez said documents submitted to the BI by Subic Air stated that the Lear jet that flew to Singapore had no passengers. Only captain Arthur Santos, co-pilot Wilfredo Bautista and flight engineer Benito Hafalla were aboard.

"Based on documents submitted, it appears that the aircraft was only carrying the three-man crew," Fernandez said.

The departure documents were certified by the immigration officer on duty that day, Raymond Tilac.

The political opposition has also criticized the Department of Foreign Affairs for refusing to cancel Garcillano’s passport, which would flush him out of hiding if he were lying low in another country.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo explained in a press briefing yesterday that they could not invalidate Garcillano’s passport because his case was not within the legal grounds that warrant cancellation.

Under the law, a passport may be canceled if the holder is a fugitive from justice, if it was fraudulently acquired or tampered with, or upon an order from a court.

"We have to wait for the courts to decide such a person is a fugitive from justice and in accordance with the passport law," Romulo said, adding that his department has sought a legal opinion from the Department of Justice. "I’m not rejecting anything. I’m stating a fact and that’s the DOJ legal opinion, a law we have to follow. I have to abide by the law. This a government by law, not by men."

Citing the DOJ’s legal opinion, Department spokesman Gilberto Asuque explained that the issue of determining if a person is a fugitive from justice or not is a "function that properly belongs to the courts."

The explanation was not good enough for Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., however. "The DFA offered an alibi, not legal reasons to cancel Garcillano’s passport," he said, charging the DFA with being a "willing accomplice."

Asuque also rejected opposition charges that the DFA dragged its feet before relaying the information to lawmakers about Garcillano’s departure to Singapore. House lawmakers are investigating Garcillano’s supposed role in helping Mrs. Arroyo cheat in last year’s presidential election.

"It takes time to be sent a note verbale but we were very prompt in our reply to Congress as to Mr. Garcillano’s whereabouts," he said.

Impeachment charges filed by opposition lawmakers accuse Mrs. Arroyo of rigging the May 2004 election, along with charges of corruption, bribery and other crimes.

Key evidence includes wiretapped conversations between Mrs. Arroyo and an election official, believed to be Garcillano, allegedly discussing ways to ensure a million-vote victory.

Mrs. Arroyo has apologized for a "lapse in judgment" in calling an election officer before results were announced but refuses to step down, denying she influenced the election. She has not identified the elections official, but the opposition says it was Garcillano.

The House of Representatives issued an arrest warrant for Garcillano on Aug. 4 after he failed to appear before congressional hearings despite repeated summons. — With Mike Frialde, Paolo Romero, Marvin Sy, Pia Lee-Brago, Sandy Araneta, AP

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