MANILA, Philippines – The opposition’s Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros and the administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) are in a tug-of-war over the custody of three individuals who witnessed how the police allegedly abused and then killed Caloocan Grade 11 student Kian Loyd delos Santos last August 16.
On Thursday, after DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre suggested that the witnesses — including two minors aged 13 and 16 — under Hontiveros’ custody could have been brainwashed, the senator moved to have the Senate take responsibility over the three, who will be staying at the Upper Chamber office in Pasay City starting Thursday night.
DOJ, PAO wants custody of witnesses
Last Monday, August 21, a day after Hontiveros said that her office had taken custody of the witnesses and that “the oppressed will fight,” Aguirre said his office was willing to consider putting them under the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program (WPP).
The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), an attached agency of the DOJ providing legal assistance to the family of Delos Santos, supported Aguirre’s position.
PAO chief Persida Acosta on Thursday asked Hontiveros to “turn over” the custody of the witnesses to the department and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) “because the Delos Santos family has chosen our office to handle their case.”
“The family of these witnesses initially sought her help, but the parents of the minors have already decided to recall the custody of the witnesses from the senator,” Acosta added.
During the Senate inquiry on Delos Santos’ killing on Thursday, Aguirre insisted that the DOJ was the “official constituted authority” to handle the WPP, including the security of the witnesses.
“That’s why we would like it to be enforced,” he said, adding that the DOJ had the capacity and the mandate to do so.
If the witnesses were “put under the custody of an individual,” explained Aguirre, “especially if this individual’s fairness is in question, so the credibility of these witnesses is bound to go down because we could never avoid the suspicion that they might have been brainwashed, especially these children.”
The DOJ chief also asked why even the 31-year-old adult witness was brought to the child protection unit of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
He also complained about the handling of the witnesses by the PGH’s child protection unit. Aguirre said the police and the NBI were only allowed to observe from behind a glass barrier inside a room as a PGH doctor conducted the questioning of the witnesses. The doctor supposedly told the authorities that if they wanted to ask something, they could write it on a piece of paper and the doctor would be the one to ask that of the witnesses.
“Bakit kinakailangang ‘yong 31-year-old ay iti-treat mo as a child witness? ‘Yon po kasing ginawa nila is how to propound questions to child witnesses [Why do you have to treat a 31-year-old as a child witness? What they did was how to propound questions to child witnesses],” Aguirre said.
He added that the NBI had formally requested the PGH doctors to surrender the adult witness to them for questioning, but the PGH doctors did not do so.
He clarified that the DOJ had offered protection to the parents of the witnesses as well, and would be willing to extend this to the rest of their family.
How can they protect witnesses if they don’t believe in Kian’s case?
But while Hontiveros said that she had taken notice of the DOJ and the PAO’s offer, the senator said the witnesses approached her first and put their trust in her.
“Sa simula pa lang [Even from the start], when my office took custody of the witnesses, it was in response to the request of these witnesses and their families, and even the family of Kian to protect them from the threats that they have been receiving,” the senator said.
Hontiveros said the guardians of the minors had signed “consent forms” entrusting the witnesses’ care to her and her office.
Hontiveros doubted the DOJ’s offer to place the witnesses under the WPP because the agency didn’t believe in Delos Santos’ case, with Aguirre saying that it had been blown out of proportion.
“Paano nila poprotektahan ang mga testigo kung sila mismo ay hindi naniniwala sa kaso [How will they protect the witnesses if they themselves don’t believe in the case]?” said Hontiveros.
However, a relative of the witnesses, identified in news reports as alias “Margaret” is asking Hontiveros to return the minor witnesses to their family.
According to Margaret, a staffer of Hontiveros earlier asked her and the witnesses to go to a fast food restaurant and that when they arrived at the place, she was surprised that there was already a ready-made agreement between the senator and the witnesses regarding the latter’s custody and the legal support that would be extended to them.
Margaret said she couldn’t do anything but sign the agreement.
“Walang paalam. Sana may kasulatan, may kasunduan kaming ganito. Dinaan nila sa…dahil bata, iti-treat sa isang fast food [They didn’t ask permission. There should have been a written agreement. They were able to influence the children by treating them in a fast food restaurant],” Margaret said in a media interview.
She claimed that Hontiveros’ camp did not seek permission from the mother of the minor witnesses, who is abroad.
On Thursday, after transferring the witnesses’ custody to the Senate, Hontiveros said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate Committee n Public Order and Dangerous Drugs investigating Delos Santos’ slay, decided to postpone the Upper Chamber’s executive session for the three witnesses until the Senate gets a signed and notarized authorization letter from the guardian of the two minors, who is working as a Filipino overseas worker in Oman.
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