CA absolves Napoles of Benhur Luy illegal detention, orders her release

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Philstar file photo of Janet Lim-Napoles.

MANILA, Philippines – The Court of Appeals has ordered Janet Lim-Napoles’ release from prison after it absolved her of the serious illegal detention of her cousin and former employee Benhur Luy, the key witness in the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by the businesswoman.

Despite the CA’s order, Napoles, who is serving her sentence at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City, can’t yet be released as she still faces other cases before the Sandiganbayan.

Last February, the Supreme Court upheld Napoles’ indictment for graft and malversation of public funds in one of the pork barrel scam cases filed by the Office of the Ombudsman against her before the anti-graft court.

In a May 5, 2017 ruling, the CA’s 12th Division said the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt its allegation against Napoles that she illegally detained Luy.

The appellate court overturned the April 2015 ruling by Judge Elmo Almeda of Branch 150 of the Regional Trial Court of Makati who sentenced Napoles and her brother, Reynald “Jojo” Lim, to reclusion perpetua or a jail term of up to 40 years for detaining Luy for three months from December 2012 to to March 2013.

Lim remains at large. A P5-million bounty was earlier put up for his capture.

It was Solicitor General Jose Calida who moved for Napoles’ acquittal through a manifestation that his office filed before the CA last January, six months since President Rodrigo Duterte started his term.

‘Just a breath away from freedom’

Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros said Napoles “is just a breath away from freedom.”

“With the help of no less than the country’s Solicitor General, the acquittal of Napoles from her illegal detention case seriously undermined the credibility of state witness Benhur Luy, whose testimony is the only thing keeping her and the accused high-profile public officials in jail. This sets into motion the possible release from prison of all those responsible for plundering the nation’s coffers,” Hontiveros said in a statement issued Monday.

“This is truly a sad day for all those pushing for justice and accountability. This is deplorable coming after the acquittal of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of plunder charges, and a hero’s burial for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. All of these contradict the Duterte government’s anti-corruption promise,” she said.

“May I remind the Duterte administration that corruption and the failure to curb it are some of the decisive elements in the weakening of governments. The dangerous combination of authoritarianism and softness on corruption bodes ill for the strength and legacy of the administration,” the senator added.

Palace says no policy shift on how it deals with Napoles case

On Monday, Malacañang said the CA’s acquittal of Napoles “has no direct impact on her pork-barrel cases.”

Government is clear that there is no policy shift on how we deal with Napoles. Neither there is an agreement forged between the Duterte administration and Napoles,” said presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella.

“President Duterte has repeatedly asserted the independence of the three branches of government. He has vowed not to interfere with the decisions of the judiciary or legislature, and assures the people that he will respect and not influence the results of their decision,” said Abella.

“The tri-partite separation of powers will be strictly observed under this administration,” he added.

The May 5 ruling of the appellate court came out less than a month after two Sandiganbayan divisions last April granted the businesswoman’s bail petitions in plunder cases involving the alleged P10-billion pork barrel racket.

Last month, the anti-graft court’s Fourth Division allowed Napoles to post a P500,000-bond after it ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that the businesswoman’s co-accused, sacked Masbate governor Rizalina Lanete, pocketed P50 million of her pork barrel funds.

Also, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division allowed Napoles to post a P1.5-million bail for her temporary freedom after it ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the businesswoman’s co-accused, former APEC party-list Rep. Edgar Valdez, amassed the Priority Development Assistance Fund allocated for his pet government projects.

CA ruling counters SC conclusion on Napoles’ case

The CA’s May 5 ruling counters the SC’s July 13, 2016 ruling that denied Napoles’ petition for review on certiorari with application for a temporary restraining order and/or writ of preliminary injunction.

In the said SC ruling, the high tribunal’s Second Division concluded that, “Napoles has been found guilty of serious illegal detention with proof beyond reasonable doubt, a quantum of evidence higher than probable cause. Resolving whether there was probable cause in the filing of information before the trial court and in the issuance of an arrest warrant would be ‘of no practical use and value.”

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) on Monday expressed “grave concern” over Napoles’ acquittal, saying “anti-corruption advocates have every reason to be worried with the CA decision.”

“While it is separate from the pork barrel plunder cases, there is concern that the acquittal of Napoles weakens Benhur Luy’s credibility,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr. said in a statement.

“What was the Solgen up to when it filed a manifestation with the CA? What could the DOJ (Department of Justice) be planning? How will the government ensure that the prosecution of the other pork barrel cases will not collapse?” Reyes said.

Is there a trade-off? Napoles to testify vs De Lima?

Meanwhile, Kabayan partylist Rep. Harry Roque asked on Monday if there was a trade-off connected to the CA’s acquittal of Napoles.

The lawmaker said he believed that the CA’s move could be part of a suspected agreement with the government that Napoles would testify against detained Sen. Leila de Lima.

Sa totoo lang, naniniwala ako na itong acquittal ni Janet Lim Napoles ay kaparte ng isang kasunduan na tetestigo pabor sa gobyerno si Janet Lim Napoles, siguro sa kaso ni (Senator) Leila de Lima,”

Also, Roque said that it was possible that Napoles might pinpoint several other former and current public officials linked to the alleged pork barrel scam.

Ang sinasabi, marami siyang pinangalanan na hindi naman kinasuhan ni dating Secretary De Lima…Kung ‘yan ang gustong isiwalat ng gobyerno, sang-ayon ako d’yan,” he said.

[It was reported that she (Napoles) earlier linked public officials to the scam but were not sued by former Justice Secretary De Lima. If that is what the government wants to disclose, then I am in favor of it.]

Roque, however, stressed that Napoles’ acquittal was only for the serious illegal detention case. He said he believes Napoles should be punished for her links to the pork scam.

“Her conviction for plunder will serve as example, especially to members of Congress, that plunder does not pay,” he said.

‘Justice gone to the dogs’

In a separate statement, Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Carlos Zarate said he was “gravely dismayed” by the decision of the Court of Appeals on the Napoles case.

“We must be very wary of this development because as things stand now many of those who have been charged of plundering the people’s coffers are getting off the hook,” Zarate said.

For his part, Akbayan partylist Rep. Tom Villarin said the acquittal showed that the standard of justice under the Duterte administration “has gone to the dogs.”

“We are witnessing how big-time plunderers are being acquitted by the courts. Napoles, however, have other non-bailable cases and her release must be put on hold,” he said.

Huwag dapat magmadali at magdiwang si Napoles [Napoles should not hurry and rejoice],” Villarin added.