Lacson flees RP

- Christina Mendez -

MANILA, Philippines - In a move that critics interpreted as a sign of guilt, Sen. Panfilo Lacson admitted yesterday that he had left the country to escape “harassment” from the Department of Justice (DOJ) amid reports that he would be arrested for the Dacer-Corbito double murder case.

“As I had correctly suspected, the harassment by the DOJ upon the order of Malacañang will never stop. That’s exactly the reason why I left the country. I am a victim of a conspiracy of whispers between Mrs. Arroyo and her stooge in the Department of Justice,” Lacson said in a one-page statement.

“For now, my concern is my own personal safety and security. I will not allow Mrs. Arroyo and her cohorts in the DOJ the pleasure of seeing my life miserable and in danger. This is one case that I will dispute the argument – flight is an indication of guilt. I am not guilty but I cannot risk putting my life and security at the mercy of that evil conspiracy,” he said.

Lacson, a former Philippine National Police chief, left for Hong Kong last Jan. 5, a few days before the DOJ recommended that he be charged for the Nov. 24, 2000 murder of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and driver Emmanuel Corbito.

He has repeatedly denied his involvement in the murders.

In his statement, the opposition senator said his role in exposing various scandals and other alleged abuses of the Arroyo administration is the main reason why the present administration had a political vendetta against him.

“Even the most tenuous of evidence to justify their own interpretation of probable cause was used against me to satisfy their political vendetta against my person. From the Jose Pidal scandal, jueteng payola, ‘Hello, Garci’ election cheating controversy, to the ZTE and fertilizer scams, and many more abuses committed by Mr. and Mrs. Arroyo against the Filipino people, where I played the leading role in exposing, are mostly the reasons why I am being harassed no end,” Lacson said.

He also appealed to the judge handling his case not to succumb to political pressure by judging the case based on evidence and merit.

“I am hoping, as I was told that the judge handling the case is one who does not easily succumb to pressure and is a stickler for rules, will remain as such and decide the case fairly and based on its merits,” he said.

Before leaving for abroad, Lacson designated majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri as officer-in-charge of the Senate committee on ways and means, which he chaired, to dispose of committee reports and any other pending matters while he is absent.

Zubiri made the manifestation yesterday before the plenary.

Lacson has been conspicuously absent since the resumption of session last Jan. 18.

No parliamentary immunity

His unceremonious flight opened up questions on whether he can invoke parliamentary immunity in his case, which Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile readily answered.

“He will not enjoy parliamentary immunity (because) the penalty is more than six years. So if we are not in session or even if we are in session, he could be arrested,” said Enrile, a veteran lawyer.

He also noted that the double murder charges are non-bailable and do not fall under immunity.

Only cases punishable by six years or less can be covered by immunity.

Senators Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Joker Arroyo said they have received reports that Lacson already fled to Australia.

“I would only assume that he goes to a country where there is no extradition,” Arroyo said.

Sources said Lacson cannot possibly go to the United States where his visa has been cancelled.

Enrile explained that he would not allow lawmen to arrest Lacson while senators are having session and that it will be up to authorities to locate the senator once a warrant of arrest is issued against him.

He said he had given Lacson travel authority during the Christmas break but he forgot the details of the trip.

“Well, he is still abroad. I do not know where he is. I covered him with a travel authority when he requested to go abroad during the recess. It’s in the record, I cannot recall the span of time he requested,” he said, adding that the last communication he had with Lacson was through a letter submitted to his office upon the resumption of session last Jan. 18.

“I received a letter from him that he cannot attend the sessions. He did not cite the reasons. Yeah, he is marked absent,” the Senate president said. “That was the last time (he communicated).”

Preemptive move

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, on the other hand, said Lacson can invoke his immunity from arrest while he is in the Senate.

“But the moment that he steps out of the Senate, he can be arrested. That is his problem. That’s what an ordinary citizen would do. If you were in the shoes of Senator Lacson, you don’t want the arresting officers or the members of the military to serve the warrant on you especially when it’s a weekend because the bonding companies are closed,” Santiago said.

She said that Lacson cannot even post a bond “so they can drag him to jail anytime,” that is why she suspects that the move was done to evade arrest.

“His absence can only be answered by that phenomenon. It’s not necessary for him to prepare his defense by himself, he has his lawyers to do that for him. So actually it is to avoid being picked up in the middle of the night,” Santiago noted, adding that the sad state of the penitentiary system in the country may have also triggered Lacson’s decision to leave the country.

“Jails in the Philippines are not exactly home sweet home. Well, there’s very real jeopardy and you might be subjected to violence by people who just delight in beating up new inmates. They do not respect position or authority or status there,” the senator said.

“Many other horrible things can happen in jails. If I were Senator Lacson, I would do the same thing because this is non-bailable,” said Santiago.

Friendly advice

But Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said that his father’s former ally should face the music as he and former President Estrada did when they were charged with plunder several years ago.

“We are all friends here. Well, first of all, if he has nothing to hide, I advise him to come out in the open and not to fear anything,” said Estrada, who was detained for two years.

“It’s not easy to be incarcerated. President Erap and I were jailed. But if you have done something you should face the court. He should be given his day in court,” said Estrada, who has attacked Lacson before the plenary after the latter insinuated that his father may have had a hand in the double murder case.

Well-timed departure

Meanwhile, Immigration Commissioner Marcelino Libanan said Lacson has been placed on the watch-list upon DOJ’s recommendation.

In an interview at the Senate after the bicameral discussions on the new Immigration Law of 2009, Libanan said Lacson left via Cathay Pacific flight CX 904 to Hong Kong last Jan. 5, two days before the DOJ included him as an accused in the double murder charges.

Prior to this, Libanan wrongly announced that a hold departure order has been issued against Lacson about a week after his departure for Hong Kong. 

But he was corrected by an aide who reminded him that no HDO has been issued against the senator.

Libanan clarified that Lacson is under the BI’s “watch-list,” meaning the agency is mandated to notify the DOJ regarding the departure or arrival of a person.

Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera, on the other hand, said there was nothing wrong with Lacson flying to Hong Kong last Jan. 5.

“He (Lacson) is not yet a fugitive. He is still a tourist,” Devanadera told reporters.

She explained that the senator did not violate any law when he left the country two days before the case was filed but he becomes a fugitive when the court issues a warrant for his arrest and he goes into hiding.

Devanadera, however, said that she expects the trial court handling the double murder case to decide on whether or not it would issue a warrant against Lacson within the week.

She said the National Bureau of Investigation would coordinate with the Interpol to serve the warrant if the court orders the arrest of the senator.

“He will have to go through the same process accorded to others who have been issued with warrant of arrest,” she said.

Devanadera also gave assurance that Lacson’s indictment is not politically motivated. She said the DOJ conducted preliminary investigation on the complaint filed by the daughters of Dacer “based merely on evidence presented to the investigating panel.”

She also denied the senator’s allegation that the DOJ was just persecuting him upon orders of the Palace.

Malacañang, for its part, also dismissed Lacson’s allegations and insisted that he should face justice if he was truly innocent.

Deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar denied Lacson’s claim that the administration was out to harm him over his exposés.

“To the best of my knowledge, Senator Lacson is facing charges filed by the DOJ following judicial process,” Olivar said in a telephone interview. “Now that he is making all these allegations, that obligates him to come out with evidence to prove them.”

“To further link the President to all these, that only further obligates him to do so,” he said. “These are statements made by a man simply fleeing justice.” - Edu Punay, Paolo Romero

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