CA acquits Napoles of illegal detention

Evelyn Macairan - The Philippine Star
CA acquits Napoles of illegal detention
Jail guards escort Janet Lim-Napoles to the Sandiganbayan for a hearing on the graft case against her in connection with the pork barrel scam on Jan. 20 last year.

MANILA, Philippines - The conviction of pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles for serious illegal detention has been dismissed by the Court of Appeals (CA).

It also ordered her immediately release unless she is being detained for other lawful cause. Napoles is still on trial for plunder, normally a non-bailable offense, in connection with the pork barrel scam.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said his department, which handled Napoles’ prosecution, “would respect” the CA’s decision. This triggered speculation that the government will no longer appeal the CA’s ruling.

In 2015, Napoles was sentenced to 40 years in prison by Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 150 Judge Elmo Alameda for detaining her cousin and employee Benhur Luy from December 2012 until March 2013. Luy later blew the whistle on the pork barrel scam.

Napoles is serving her sentence at the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong.

In a 35-page decision penned by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro, and concurred with by Associate Justices Samuel Gaerlan and Jhosep Lopez, the CA’s 12th Division granted the appeal filed by Napoles.

The CA said the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the crime was committed. It said there was no indubitable proof that Luy was held against his will at the “Bahay ni San Jose” retreat house when Napoles’ brother Reynaldo “Jojo”Lim approached priests and suggested Luy’s spiritual renewal.

Bahay ni San Jose is said to be owned by Napoles, but the prosecution also failed to show evidence that she owned the retreat house located in Magallanes Village, Makati City.

“Benhur was neither belligerent about the idea nor showed any actions to indicate that he was coerced or forced to undergo the same. Instead, Benhur attended mass every night with the priests residing in Bahay ni San Jose,” the CA justices said.

He also reportedly kept a journal that contained biblical verses. He wrote a letter to his family on Feb. 21, 2013 wherein he narrated what he had been doing at the Bahay ni San Jose.

Secondly, the CA also pointed out that during Luy’s stay at the retreat house, he never made an attempt to escape or tell anyone about his situation.

“It is quite baffling how someone who was illegally detained would not mention such fact to several priests he sees on a daily basis,” the CA said.

He also updated his family from time to time but never mentioned his forced detention.

There were also several instances when he met with members of his family and never showed any sign that he was being kept in Bahay ni San Jose against his will.

Thirdly, Luy’s actions during the rescue operation negates the allegation that he was detained against his will.

During the trial, Luy had said that he thought the rescue operatives were hired by Napoles to kill him, thus he resisted.

But the CA said, “We find this allegation flimsy and too convenient to warrant appreciation” because when the rescue team from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) entered the condominium units in South Gardens, they were accompanied by Luy’s brother Arthur. The operatives also introduced themselves to be from the NBI.

The CA also said that unlike the Makati court, it did not find the phrases made by Napoles to Luy “hindi ka na makakalabas” and “ikulong na yan” as clear statements and “could have different meaning or interpretation depending on the context on when it was uttered.”

The CA also said that the prosecution failed to establish the allegations of conspiracy between siblings Janet and Jojo to commit the alleged crime.

“Thus, the oft-repeated truism that the conviction of the accused must rest not on the weakness of the defense but on the strength of the prosecution must be applied in the present appeal. The constitutionality guaranteed presumption of innocence must prevail,” the CA justices also said.

Detention orders remain

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang said the court’s earlier rulings ordering Napoles’ detention for plunder cases shall stand despite her acquittal by the CA.

“The commitment orders of the Sandiganbayan against her stand because they were issued in connection with the cases pending before the Sandiganbayan. These orders constitute the legal bases for her continued detention,” Tang said in a text message to reporters.

In the commitment orders issued by the Sandiganbayan First, Third and Fifth Divisions in July 2014, Napoles was ordered detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig.

Tang said the Sandiganbayan may issue a new commitment order to identify where Napoles will be transferred following her acquittal in the illegal detention case.

“The Court needs to issue another order designating her new place of detention because that earlier order to detain her at BJMP was superseded in light of her supervening conviction then,” Tang explained.

Napoles was detained at the BJMP detention facility for almost a year, but following the Makati court’s ruling finding her guilty of the illegal detention case, she was transferred to the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City in April 2015.

For Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, however, the CA’s ruling on the illegal detention case will have no bearing on Napoles’ pork barrel or Priority Development Assistant Fund (PDAF) cases.

“I don’t think it has any bearing on the PDAF cases. The credibility of Napoles in that detention case does not affect her credibility or the credibility of the witnesses for that matter,” Morales said in a press conference last April 25. – With Elizabeth Marcelo, Delon Porcalla, Paolo Romero

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