Philippine Court to Proceed with Ex-Leader Aquino’s Trial Over Botched Raid

Felipe Villamor
110914-mamasapano-620.jpg Philippine police commandos unload bags containing bodies of comrades killed in a clash with Muslim rebels in the southern town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, Jan. 26, 2015.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino will stand trial for a bungled police raid in the south that left 44 commandos and 17 rebels dead two years ago, according to a ruling made public on Thursday by the top graft prosecutor.

There was probable cause to charge Aquino with one count of graft and corruption, and another count of usurpation of official functions for ordering the operation in the southern town of Mamasapano that also killed Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said.

The deaths in January 2015 were the biggest single-day combat loss for government forces in recent memory. It also damaged Aquino’s popularity, which was already at a low.

Aquino and two of his former top police generals allegedly launched the police operation in the remote town in Maguindanao province without the knowledge of other police and military officials.

Retreating policemen faced an overwhelming force from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s biggest former Muslim rebel group that signed a peace deal with Manila, but was caught unawares by the raid.

MILF controlled the area where the operation took place, but said there was no coordination prior to the raid, in violation of the earlier agreement. Seventeen MILF rebels also died in the clash, according to the group.

In June 2017, the Office of the Ombudsman decided to press charges against Aquino, his then-national police chief Alan Purisima and Special Action Force head Getulio Napeñas for criminal negligence. Aquino immediately filed an appeal.

But in an order dated Monday and publicly released Thursday, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales denied Aquino’s appeal and said the case would go to the Sandiganbayan graft court.

If convicted, Aquino and his two officials could face up to six years in jail.

Morales on Thursday insisted that Aquino had ordered Purisima to carry out the planned operation, codenamed Oplan Exodus, despite the latter being suspended for an unrelated graft case.

This act “constituted an act of persuading, inducing or influencing another public officer to perform acts constituting a violation of the order of preventive suspension.”

“President Aquino has repeatedly admitted and asserted in his counter-affidavit and in the instant motion that he utilized the services of Purisima for Oplan Exodus, albeit he is insisting that it was only for a limited role of a resource person,” Morales said.

But evidence on record revealed Purisima’s “actual participation in Oplan Exodus” and that he was “certainly much more than a mere resource person.”

“That President Aquino utilized the services of the preventively suspended Purisima, prior to and during the implementation, thereby giving Purisima an active role in Oplan Exodus as he was exercising a degree of authority and discretion over Napeñas, is the crux of the finding of probable cause against President Aquino,” she said.

‘A government of laws, not of men’

Aquino, in his earlier court filings, said he was within his rights when he ordered Purisima to carry out the raid, and argued that there was nothing irregular about his order.

He said his “only intent was to utilize the expertise” of the disgraced former police chief in carrying out the planned raid.

But Morales dismissed Aquino’s claims that he was denied due process, and emphasized that the former president was given every opportunity to be heard during the preliminary investigation of the case.

“While a president of the republic is certainly possessed with broad discretionary powers, the exercise thereof must not, however, be done in violation of a law or laws, much less when such exercise constitutes a crime,” Morales said.

“Every public official and office is expected under the law to fully comply with it, without any form of circumvention, run-around, equivocation or pretense. Obedience to the rule of law forms the bedrock of our system of justice. A government of laws, not of men, excludes the exercise of broad discretionary powers by those acting under its authority,” she said.

Aquino’s spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, said the former president was consulting with his lawyers, but no immediate statement was forthcoming.

Despite the high death toll, the operation succeeded in neutralizing Marwan, one of the region’s most-wanted militants who had a bounty of $5 million on his head offered by the United States.

But it also came at a steep political price for Aquino, whose popularity rating was at a low toward the end of his six-year term as president, which ended in June 2016.


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