The Philippines Supreme Court has temporarily halted proceedings by an anti-graft court that had indicted former President Benigno Aquino over a botched counter-terrorist raid, which led to the deaths of 44 police commandos in January 2015.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno granted a petition by the country’s solicitor general and relatives of the fallen officers to freeze the proceedings, according to a resolution dated Feb. 7 but released to the press only on Friday.
They had questioned the downgrading of charges filed against Aquino and two of his senior police officers, from multiple homicide to the lighter case of usurpation of authority in the raid that he had ordered in Mamasapano, a town in southern Maguindanao province.
“Effective immediately, and continuing until further orders from this court ... the Ombudsman, and/or persons acting upon your orders ... are hereby enjoined from implementing the assailed (orders),” Sereno said in her ruling.
The arraignment was supposedly scheduled for Thursday next week.
Aquino was indicted last year for the lesser crime of usurpation of official functions, rather than the higher charge of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide that the relatives of the slain officers had wanted.
The charges stemmed from the raid that went awry on Jan. 26, 2015, when Aquino green-lighted an operation in the southern town of Mamasapano to capture Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan).
The police Special Action Force officers succeeded in the mission, killing Marwan, but later became caught up in a huge firefight with guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim rebel force that had signed a peace deal with Manila.
MILF officials later testified at a congressional inquiry that they were not told about the raid beforehand, in violation of previously agreed upon protocols.
Forty-four SAF officers who took part in the operation were killed at Mamasapano, in what has been described as the biggest single-day combat loss for the government in recent memory.
The operation was ordered by Aquino and his two top police generals, without the knowledge of others in the security establishment.
Aquino earlier told the court that there was nothing irregular about his order, laying the blame instead on the police generals.