DOJ chief says CJ asked him to ‘tone down’ reasons for seeking transfer of Maute cases

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Justice Sec. Vitaliano Aguirre II testifies at the House hearing on the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Tuesday, November 28. (photo by Boy Santos, PhilStar)

MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II revealed claimed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno asked him to “tone down” his concerns for the safety of judges and prosecutors when he sought to transfer the Maute cases outside of Mindanao.

During the third hearing on the impeachment complaint against Sereno, Aguirre told lawmakers she called him to a meeting at her office at the Supreme Court on June 19 and asked him to concentrate instead on the need for the military to focus on the fight against extremists in Marawi City.

“In that meeting, CJ Sereno, dalawa lang po kami sa (there were just two of us in the) room, told me to tone down my letter in requesting the transfer. She told me that I need not emphasize anymore the dangers facing the judges and prosecutors and instead focus my letter on the fact that transferring the detainees or the trial to Taguig would free the military… free them and focus attention on fighting the Maute (group),” Aguirre said.

Heeding Sereno’s suggestion, Aguirre said he wrote another letter that same day without raising the reasons he cited in his earlier letters seeking the transfer of the cases.

Aguirre said he enumerated five reasons for seeking the transfer of the cases in his first letters of request to the Supreme Court.

These included his concern for the safety of prosecutors and judges in Cagayan De Oro City, the proximity of Misamis Oriental to Marawi, and the inability of the military and the courts in Cagayan De Oro to accommodate the detainees.

The Supreme Court initially rejected Aguirre’s ay 29 request to transfer the cases outside of Mindanao and designated the courts in Cagayan De Oro City to handle these. It eventually relented and allowed the transfer to Taguig City.

Aguirre said he was only informed of this on July 18, or 14 days after the high court made its decision.

By this time, he reckoned that around 50 days had passed since he first sought for the cases’ transfer.

In his impeachment complaint, lawyer Larry Gadon claimed Sereno committed a culpable violation of the Constitution when she allegedly delayed the resolution of the request to transfer the Maute cases, supposedly after realizing she lost in the voting.

However, Sereno’s spokespersons said on Tuesday that the Supreme Court en banc resolved the request of Aguirre and reiterated that Gadon’s claims about the intentional delay of the cases’ transfer was “baseless.”

“It took the Supreme Court only eight days to act on the initial request of Secretary Aguirre that the Maute and related cases be transferred to Taguig City. The Supreme Court received Secretary Aguirre’s request on 29 May 2017. It issued its resolution thereon on 6 June 2017,” the Sereno camp said in a statement.

“As to Secretary Aguirre’s request for reconsideration, the Supreme Court discussed the same barely 14 days later, or on 27 June 2017 (amidst oral arguments and the Supreme Court’s urgent work on the petitions questioning President Duterte’s declaration of martial law). Only 14 days later, or on 18 July 2017, the Supreme Court released its resolution granting Secretary Aguirre’s request for reconsideration,” it added.

Questioning Aguirre, Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia raised the issue of opposition lawmakers contesting the declaration of martial law in Mindanao around the same time Aguirre was requesting for the transfer of Maute cases.

Sereno was among the three justices who voted martial law over the whole of Mindanao. In her dissenting opinion, she said martial law could have been limited to Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Sulu.

Garcia asked Aguirre: “By toning down emphasis on danger outside of Marawi and merely focusing on the need of troops to fight in the battle raging in Marawi, would that in effect give an impression na ang danger ay nasa Marawi lang talaga (that the danger was limited only to Marawi)?”

But Aguirre declined to comment, saying “it is not in my personal knowledge.”

Meanwhile, House justice committee chair Representative Reynaldo Umali asked Aguirre if it was proper for the Chief Justice to asked him to tone down his concerns.

Aguirre said he did not want to conclude or speculate what was in Sereno’s mind.

But Umalie pressed on: “If you were in her position, would you have done the same? Telling a high official of government to tone down?”

Aguirre replied: ” I would not do that.”

He added it seemed “improper” for Sereno to request him to tone down his reasons for wanting the Maute cases transferred.

Asked by ABS party-list representative Eugene De Vera if the 50-day period before allowing the transfer of the Maute cases was a long delay, Aguirre said h believed so, pointing to the arrest of a cousin of the Mautes in the same Cagayan De Oro neighborhood where the city prosecutor lived.