MANILA, Philippines — Even as Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV continued to wait for a public apology from Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, the Cabinet member insisted he never categorically linked opposition politicians to the Marawi crisis but confirmed ordering the National Bureau of Investigation to “conduct investigation and case build-up over the alleged destabilization plot against the government.”
Aguirre ignited controversy when he told reporters Wednesday that he had received information that Aquino, along with Senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Representative Gary Alejano and Roland Llamas, political adviser of former President Benigno Aquino III, had gone to Marawi weeks before hostilities broke out between extremists and government forces.
He also claimed the four had met with members of the prominent Alonto and Lucman clans of Marawi on May 2, and added: “Hindi ko malaman (I don’t know) why after they went there nagkagulo na (violence broke out).”
Hours later, he backtracked and apologized to the Lucmans and Alontos even as he accused reporters of “misquoting him.”
Aquino, Trillanes and Alejano denied Aguirre’s claims, presenting proof of why they could not have been in Marawi on the days the Justice chief claimed they were there. When fellow Cabinet members also came to Aquino’s defense, Aguirre took back what he said about the senator.
Aquino also said Aguirre had promised to issue a public apology and clarification, claiming he was “confused” by all the information he was receiving.
But media organizations struck back at Aguirre for blaming them, with the Justice and Court Reporters Association saying their reports were based on recordings of the Justice secretary’s press briefing, “including the fact that he showed a photo from his mobile phone supposedly showing the meeting between the senators and Muslim clans in Marawi last May 2.”
That photo was actually lifted from the Facebook account of Zamboanga del Sur Vice Governor Ace Cerilles showing him with Trillanes, Alejano, Llamas and Mark Lapid at the Iloilo International Airport on September 4, 2015.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, for its part, told Aguirre that “trying to blame others for your blunders unmasks you as a mean-spirited coward.”
On Friday, Aguirre issued a “further clarification” that repeated statements issued by other officials that Aquino had visited Marawi on May 19 to inaugurate a Go Negosyo Center in the city.
At the same time, however, although he had already said that “I did not say there was a meeting between the two families and some lawmakers prior to the Marawi seige. The said meeting never took place and no member of both families ever met with Senator Trillanes, Congressman Alejano and Ronald Llamas,” in Friday’s statement, he only noted that Aquino “was not present in the alleged meeting of opposition leaders said to have been held in Marawi City on May 2, 2017.”
And even as he insisted that he had “told the media that the information he got were very raw and he wanted to verify and investigate further” and again claimed that the reporters “didn’t mention my repeated precautions that he (sic) is yet to fully verify the truth of reported incident,” the statement also stressed that he “immediately issued a Department order directing the NBI to conduct investigation and case build-up over the alleged destabilization plot against the government by some opposition senators and leaders.”
The DOJ also released a copy of the order to media.
For his part, Aquino, in his own statement Friday, said: “The Justice Secretary should simply apologize and take responsibility for his reckless accusations.”
Aquino also indicated that Aguirre’s “clarification” was not satisfactory, saying it “is merely stating the obvious.”
“The least he can do is make a public apology at hinahanap natin ang pangako na mas magiging maingat na siya sa kanyang mga binibitawang salita (and we are looking for his promise to be more careful in the statements he makes),”he added.
HERE ARE THE NEWS5 VIDEOS FROM AGUIRRE’S WEDNESDAY PRESS BRIEFING: