By Joel R. San Juan, February 22 2019; Business Mirror

Image Credit to ABS-CBN News

A panel of prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday reprimanded the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after the latter attempted to withdraw as one of the respondents in the illegal importation of drugs complaint in connection with the smuggling of more than 300 kilos of illegal drugs concealed inside magnetic lifters last year.

During Thursday’s continuation of the preliminary investigation on the case, Assistant State Prosecutors Mary Jane Systat, who heads the prosecution panel, told the NBI that it was apparent that the NBI “did not study [the case very] well.”

Prior to this, the NBI told the panel that it would be submitting a motion for clarification clearing the Bureau of Customs (BOC) Deputy Collector for Operations at the Manila International Container Port (MICP) Michael Vargas from any culpability in connection with the smuggling of the illegal drugs.

The NBI said based on its review on the procedure on the bill of lading which contains information about the shipment, it would appear that it did not reach his office.

Thus, the agency admitted that including Vargas in the complaint was premature and extended its apology to Vargas, who was present during the hearing.

When sought for his reaction on the development, Vargas told reporters: “They [the NBI] apologized [and] it’s on record and I accepted it. Let the wheels of justice take its course. I trust that there is justice in the Philippines.”

However, Systat refused to formally accept the NBI’s motion for clarification, saying that it is only beneficial to one person and detrimental to the interest of the other respondents.

“This motion we cannot accept because it’s very prejudicial to other respondents. We don’t want to make as confusing as it was,” Systat commented.

Instead, Systat directed the NBI and the other parties to submit until March 12 their position paper, where the former may manifest their intent to remove Vargas as one of the respondents.

Systat said the panel will conduct a clarificatory hearing on the same day, after which, the case is deemed submitted for resolution.

The panel added that it would also conduct an ocular inspection of the abandoned magnetic lifters on March 4 and March 7 at the Port of Manila and at a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez in Cavite, respectively, to aid them in resolving the complaint.

Former Customs Commissioner now head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority Isidro Lapeña also personally appeared before the DOJ panel to submit his counteraffidavit in connection with the case.

Lapeña was assisted by his lawyer John Telan in filing his counter-affidavit.

The NBI is seeking Lapeña’s prosecution for alleged violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, dereliction of duty and grave misconduct due to his failure to file complaints against the consignees, importers and brokers of the two magnetic lifters.

Aside from Lapeña, the NBI also sought the prosecution of  former Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Deputy Director for Administration Ismael Fajardo, Customs intelligence officer Jimmy S. Guban and dismissed Senior Supt. Eduardo P. Acierto, “being the maincore conspirators”  in the entry of the magnetic lifters containing illegal drugs both from MICP and Cavite.

The agency said the said the respondents should be prosecuted for violation of Section 4 (importation of illegal drugs) in relation to Section 26 of Republic Act 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, grave misconduct and violation of the anti-graft laws together with other customs officials, police officers and several individuals.

The magnetic lifters containing shabu slipped past BOC and were later discovered at the Port of Manila and in Cavite.

At least 50 other individuals were named as respondents by the NBI in the complaint.