Agra breaks into tears but still sticks to order
By Miko Morelos, Dona Pazzibugan, Christian V. Esguerra
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—He admits he’s a crybaby.
Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra, in the eye of a storm over his decision to clear two members of the powerful Ampatuan clan of murder charges in what has come to be known as the Maguindanao Massacre, was in tears Thursday as he spoke about the public criticism that was hurting him and his family.
But he’s still sticking to his decision.
Agra also took pains to clarify that the Palace directive on a review of the case of Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan only meant a closer scrutiny of case records once private prosecutors had filed a motion for reconsideration.
Speaking before employees of the Bureau of Corrections at the national penitentiary, where he signed the new rules on parole, Agra said he was sorry that he was “on the verge of crying.”
“I was brought up to be a crybaby by my father, and I am just being true to myself,” he said in Filipino.
Agra said being in the headlines and pilloried by angry protesters were taking a toll on him and his family.
He said it pained him to see the name “bequeathed to me by my father” made the subject of snide wordplay—a reference to placards with the words “Agra-biyado” and “Agra-be” held up by protesters at the Department of Justice.
“That hurts me because I am a family guy,” he said.
He also said he was glad that his family was abroad, and pleaded with his critics to spare his loved ones from their anger.
Public outrage notwithstanding, Malacañang Thursday made it clear that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo remained behind Agra.
Her deputy spokesperson, Gary Olivar, acknowledged that Agra’s controversial decision had its political cost on the unpopular President, but maintained that “the primary consideration is still what the law allows and requires you to do.”
“Sometimes, you make the legally correct decision and you have no choice if there are costs associated with it,” Olivar said, adding that Agra “continues to enjoy the full discretion and authority of his office with respect to the conduct of prosecutorial proceedings on the Maguindanao massacre case.”
Later in an interview with reporters, Agra said he had conferred with Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza on the directive for a review of the case, and was told that the justice department should pay close attention to the records attached to the motion for reconsideration.
“So they were not asking that based on the current records I have I should revisit my decision,” he said.
Agra said he was “standing firm” on his resolution on the Ampatuans, reiterating that it was solely based on evidence and documents presented to him.
“Until and unless a motion for recommendation is filed, I will stick with my decision,” he said. “If there is a motion for recommendation [filed], I have three options: Affirm my earlier decision, modify it, or reverse it.”
Agra said part of Malacañang’s order was for him to submit a weekly report on the developments in the Ampatuan case.
He said he was considering forming a new panel of prosecutors to review Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan’s case once private lawyers of the massacre victims filed a motion for reconsideration.
“Or I’ll look at the evidence again. But right now, I’m more inclined to form a panel. But of course, they will not be the ones who took part in the case,” he said.
Agra said he respected the protest rallies mounted by the families of the 57 massacre victims.
“I hope [their anger] wouldn’t reach a point where my life and the lives of my family are under threat,” he said. “My conscience is clear. I can still sleep soundly at night, albeit in shorter hours because of the heavy workload.”
The families of nine of the 32 media workers killed in Maguindanao in November 2009 Thursday formally sought Agra’s disbarment as a lawyer for issuing the resolution supposedly contrary to law and for deceit and gross misconduct in office.
The victims’ families represented by lawyer Harry Roque Jr. filed their petition before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines office in Ortigas Center, Pasig City.
In his resolution which he issued at the close of office hours on April 16, a Friday, Agra ordered prosecutors to “immediately” amend the information filed in court and exclude Zaldy Ampatuan, the suspended governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Maguindanao Vice Gov. Akmad Ampatuan Sr. from the murder case and to report back to him within five days upon receipt of his order.
But Roque said Agra should have dismissed the Ampatuans’ petitions for review from the start because these did not give the complainants a copy of their petition.
Roque also took Agra to task for violating the complainants’ right to due process by not giving them a chance to comment.
He said it was “basic and elementary” for any lawyer like Agra, to “first hear the side of the other party” before issuing a resolution.
“It was utterly unlawful, dishonest, deceitful, immoral and certainly shameless to the legal profession that Attorney Agra proceeded to railroad his resolution without consideration of the complainants’ right to be heard,” he said.
Disregard of evidence
Roque also said Agra violated administrative rules for failing to seek the approval of Chief State Prosecutor Claro Arellano before issuing his resolution.
He said Agra’s finding that there was lack of probable cause against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan amounted to “unlawful, dishonest and deceitful disregard of the evidence.”
But in a statement Thursday, Ampatuan family lawyer Sigfrid Fortun claimed that Agra’s exoneration of the two Ampatuans was “based on evidence.”
Fortun played down the testimony of witness Kenny Dalandag, who was identified as a member of the Ampatuan private army, claiming that he saw Zaldy Ampatuan among those meeting in the house of clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr. in Shariff Aguak in the evening of Nov. 22, 2009, the eve of the massacre.
He insisted that Zaldy was not in Maguindanao at the time, and that Zaldy’s cell phone records showed a call was made at 7:04 p.m. from Davao City.
Fortun also said Akmad Ampatuan was not included in the original complaints prepared by the National Bureau of Investigation on Dec. 11, 2009, and by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group on Dec. 7. 2009.
“How could Secretary Agra therefore order the indictment and continued detention of a person who was not even mentioned in the complaints filed by the NBI and CIDG?” he said.
For court to settle
Olivar acknowledged that the decision clearing the two Ampatuans could be seen as an “unnecessary aggravation” in the sense that it was something Agra could have left to the courts to settle.
“I understand, from the point of view of political expediency, you can make that argument,” he said. “But from the point of view of the operation of law, I’m not sure that that’s an argument that can be made or would be considered as legitimate.”
Olivar claimed that Ms Arroyo was not informed about the resolution before Agra made it public.
“I would imagine that this was also news to her when this first broke in the news,” he said, noting that Cabinet officials were not necessarily required to “clear everything in advance with her.”
‘Politics before justice’
Olivar assured the relatives of the massacre victims that Ms Arroyo “expects that the judicial system will prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law so that justice will be served.”
But the human rights group Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern over the case, saying the dropping of murder charges against the two Ampatuans just before the national elections “smacks of placing politics before justice and human rights.”
In a statement, AI said the government must continue to pursue the case against the Ampatuans as part of its commitment.
“The Philippines must abide by its obligations under international human rights law to ensure effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses and their families, and to prevent impunity,” AI said.
It said the Maguindanao Massacre had put the Philippine government “under international scrutiny.”
AI also said allegations of poll fraud in 2004 had “cast a heavy shadow” on the next elections.
“With the elections coming up in May, the Philippine government needs to demonstrate that it will not tolerate impunity for human rights for political gain,” it said. With reports from Alcuin Papa, Michael Lim Ubac and Carla P. Gomez, Inquirer Visayas