WATCH | Aguirre vs De Lima: DOJ chief blames predecessor’s order for confusion that led to old detainee’s death at MPD

May 11, 2017 - 5:04 PM
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Reuters file photo of Sen. Leila de Lima

MANILA – Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre on Thursday said “those responsible” in the case of an elderly Chinese drug suspect, Api Ang, who died in Manila police detention after a fiscal had already dismissed his case will be made liable, even as he found another reason to blame his predecessor.

Aguirre said then-Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had issued a Department of Justice circular mandating continued detention even in cases where charges were dismissed after preliminary investigation, and certain officials were “confused” about this, even though Aguirre revoked such order with his own in January 2017.

In a statement, Aguirre stressed that, “Department Circular No. 004 which I issued on January 4, 2017 provides that notwithstanding the automatic review of cases covered by R.A. No. 9165 and involving the maximum penalty of reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment, the respondent shall immediately be released from detention unless detained for other causes.”

He said he had ordered an investigation “into why this provision was not observed in the case of Mr. Ang,” adding that “the parties responsible shall be held accountable.”

According to initial media reports, Api Ang, 61, was arrested on November 21, 2016 by elements of the Manila Police District (MPD) in a raid on his hotel unit where they supposedly found drugs, paraphernalia and ammunition therein.

“Sometime thereafter, the criminal complaint against Mr. Ang was dismissed by the City Prosecution Office of Manila. The case involving dangerous drugs, its dismissal was subjected to Automatic Review before the Office of the Secretary of Justice,” Aguirre explained in his statement.

“Notwithstanding the dismissal of his case before the City Prosecutor, Mr. Ang remained in detention until his demise last April 2017,” added Aguirre, citing initial investigation he had ordered.

‘Confusion’ from previous issuances

Such “initial investigation and incomplete reports submitted to the Department of Justice on the matter suggest that a confusion as to the continued detention of Mr. Ang arose due to previous issuances of the past administration,” according to Aguirre.

One such issuance, he added, “is Department Circular No. 022 dated February 12, 2013 issued by then Secretary Leila M. De Lima, with the subject ‘Guidelines on the Release of Respondents/Accused Pending Automatic Review of Dismissed Cases involving Republic Act No. 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act).’”

Under the de Lima circular, “certain respondents when arrested shall remain in detention while their respective cases are under Automatic Review, despite dismissal of the preliminary investigation of cases against them,” noted Aguirre.

De Lima’s successor, Secretary Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, issued Department Circular No. 050 dated December 18, 2015, amending De Lima’s circular by requiring “that the respondent shall be immediately released from detention pending automatic review only if the case subject of the automatic review is not resolved within 30) days,” according to Aguirre.

According to the DOJ statement, “immediately recognizing that the foregoing Circulars are in violation of the people’s right to liberty, Department Circular No. 004 dated January 4, 2017 was issued by Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II in order to rectify this grave wrong.”

The Aguirre-era circular mandates that notwithstanding the automatic review, respondent shall be immediately released from detention unless detained for other causes.

“In other words, said Aguirre, “the Department solemnly abides with the Constitution and, as a matter of high policy, directs all its officials and personnel to ensure that no person shall unduly suffer prolonged detention once his or her case has been dismissed, even if the same should be subjected to an appeal or review.”

He lamented that “one detainee has to die before the Department should know that the confusion brought about by the Circulars of the prior administration persists, adversely affecting the lives and rights of those in detention.”

Investigation under way

The Secretary of Justice has already instructed officials concerned to conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances leading to the arrest and subsequent death of Mr. Ang, including as to why he remained in detention despite the dismissal of the criminal complaint against him, as well as the status of the automatic review of his case.

The National Bureau of Investigation is currently conducting its own investigation on possible violations of laws by the MPD and its responsible officers in the arrest and death of Mr. Ang.

City Prosecutor Edward M. Togonon has been directed to explain as to the reasons and circumstances over the continued detention of Mr. Ang despite the dismissal of the criminal complaint against him, said the DOJ Secretary’s statement.

De-clogging case load

Aguirre said his office recognizes “there is a problem in the disposition of cases pending in the DOJ, particularly with respect to appealed and reviewed cases pending before the Secretary of Justice.” Efforts are being taken “in order to de-clog the dockets of cases pending before the Office of the Secretary.”

Department Circular Nos. 003 and 019, dated January 4, 2017 and March 8, 2017, respectively, have radically expedited the disposition and resolution of these pending cases. Pursuant to their functions as mandated by law, the entire Prosecution Staff are directed to assist the Secretary of Justice in his disposition of these cases.

Currently, around 15,000 cases are pending the Secretary’s review, with “13,000 of these cases carried over without action from the previous administration.” Nevertheless, the implementation of new policies is expected to address and expedite the resolution of all these cases, said Aguirre’s office.

Reforms are under way as well “to improve methodologies and best practices in the Department. To date, cases filed starting May 2017 are being preliminarily resolved on procedural matters in real-time, which means litigants can expect to receive resolutions of their cases as early as a week after date of filing, while cases which require substantive review are expected to be resolved within sixty (60) days, as mandated by the Rules of Court.”

Parallel to the real-time resolution of newly-filed cases, the approximately 15,000 cases pending before the Department are likewise being reviewed by the Prosecution Staff.

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