MANILA — Allowing former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste to leave jail without authorization shows the absence of “real justice” in the country, a bishop said Monday.
“It is clear as daylight that we really do not have justice, where there is equal treatment under the law. The so-called lady justice that is blindfolded and carrying scales, it is an empty symbol,” said Bishop Pedro Arigo of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) Director Ernesto Diokno earned the ire of President Benigno Aquino III after various groups criticized the prisons official for supposed security lapses at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City.
“The term equal treatment under the law is just empty words that are written on paper. But in reality, if you are small and poor, you don’t wield any influence. But if you are rich, powerful and have connections, even if you get jailed, you’ll get VIP treatment,” Arigo said.
Arigo heads the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Prison and Pastoral Care (ECPPC). The CBCP-ECPPC is an office that promotes and provides programs and opportunities for the prisoners and their families, ex-prisoners and their families, victims and their families, the correctional employees and the volunteers in prison service.
On Monday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) began its fact-finding investigation on the possible administrative liability of BuCor officials and jail custodians, prompting the prelate to hope that the investigation would curb unfair treatment at the New Bilibid Prisons.
“There is a real need for a revisit and investigation on the existing system or subculture inside our penal colonies… There should be no VIP treatment,” said Arigo.
Also on Monday, President Aquino told reporters that he could not figure out why the homicide convict was able to leave prison grounds without proper clearance.
“How did it happen? How come that a person who was just convicted of a crime was able to secure a ‘living out’ status? There are so many questions that need to be answered,” he said.
Soon after Leviste was arrested in front of a building he owned in Makati City last week, Diokno went to Malacañang to explain himself, but apparently, that did not appease President Aquino.
Diokno submitted his leave of absence Monday to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima “to give a free hand” to the DOJ fact-finding body.
He said that he is taking leave of absence so that the people will not think that he is influencing the outcome of the investigation.
“Whoever is liable must be made answerable. I shall resume the duties of my position after the investigation is over and the result is known,” Diokno said.
The five-man fact-finding panel formed by Secretary de Lima last Friday will finish its investigation on Wednesday.
“Obviously, some people are at fault but we have to find out first if they can still be reformed or replaced altogether,” President Aquino said.
While Aquino is being pressed to admonish and even fire the prisons chief, he said he would rather wait for the recommendations of the DOJ on the matter before taking appropriate action.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said it would be best if the President gets the recommendations before his scheduled departure for Thailand and Brunei on May 26.
On Monday, Leviste told the DOJ panel that he left the New Bilibid Prison without permission from his jailers.
“When I didn’t see anyone (stopping me), I just went ahead because I couldn’t bear my toothache,” he said, adding it usually takes him two to three days to get permits for medical purposes.
Leviste told the panel that he earned his “living out” status under the administration of former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Under a “living out” status, a privilege granted to Leviste, prisoners only have to check in at 8 a.m., 12 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. but are otherwise allowed to wander around outside their cells.
Last week, Leviste was arrested in front of his LPL Tower building in Makati without his custodial guard and without a permit from the Justice Secretary.
In January 2009, Leviste was arrested and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing his business aide, Rafael de las Alas, in 2007.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives committee on justice on Monday deferred its own investigation of Leviste’s case to allow the DOJ panel to finish its probe.
Niel Tupas Jr. had postponed the hearing on the impeachment case against Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo to hold a hearing on the Leviste case.
The House leadership on Monday said Leviste’s caper “personifies a rotten system”.
“He was the only one who got caught but I’m sure many people have done that in the past,” House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. told reporters in an ambush interview.
Senator Francis Escudero said Leviste’s privileged status in prison is not new, and that the few rich people who end up behind bars have living out status. “That just makes it seem that our penal and jail system is just for the poor because the rich always have the privileges,” he said.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, for her part, said that special treatment for prisoners has been going on for so long that apart from “putting the Secretary of Justice‘s office in Bilibid,” the only solution would be to legalize it.
She said the Bureau of Corrections should come up with guidelines on who can be given the living out status and to follow those guidelines.
She said that if the government cannot stop the practice, the next best thing would be to regulate it.
But for Senator Loren Legarda, who used to be married to Leviste until their marriage was annulled, there should be no special treatment for rich prisoners.
- [In the news] VIP prisoners face probe – INQUIRER.net (hronlineph.wordpress.com)
- [In the news] Leviste to be charged with ‘evasion of sentence’ – BuCor – Nation – GMA News Online – Latest Philippine News (hronlineph.wordpress.com)
- [In the news] De Lima: Heads will roll in Leviste incident | ABS-CBN News | Latest Philippine Headlines, Breaking News, Video, Analysis, Features (hronlineph.wordpress.com)
- [In the news] Aquino mum on sanctions vs BuCor director | Sun.Star (hronlineph.wordpress.com)
- [Press Release] Rights group calls for full probe over Antonio Leviste’s vacation and urges the immediate release of Mariano Umbrero (hronlineph.wordpress.com)