By Ma. Reina L Tolentino/Manila Times
After four years of incarceration, former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla walked out of the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Quezon City on Friday a free man, hours after he was acquitted of plunder by the Sandiganbayan.
Shortly after the anti-graft court issued its verdict, Revilla posted bail of P480,000 for his temporary liberty. Although he was found not guilty of plunder, Revilla still faces graft charges at the Sandiganbayan.
Voting 3-2, the anti-graft court’s Special First Division acquitted the former lawmaker of plunder, saying there was no strong evidence to show that he pocketed
P224mn in kickbacks by releasing his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel to non-government organisations owned by Janet Lim Napoles.
“For failure of the prosecution to establish beyond reasonable doubt that accused Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla, Jr received, directly or indirectly the rebates, commission, and kickbacks from his PDAF, the Court cannot hold him liable for the crime of plunder. Accordingly, he is acquitted,” the court said in its 186-page decision.
The court however found Napoles and Revilla’s former aide Richard Cambe guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. It ordered the confinement of Napoles at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City and Cambe at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City.
Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg, Edgardo Caldona and Georgina Hidalgo voted for Revilla’s acquittal. Associate Justice Efren de la Cruz, who leads the Sandiganbayan’s First Division, and Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta dissented.
The justices gave weight to Revilla’s claim that his signature in the endorsment papers was forged.
“The consequence of this factual finding that the purported signature of accused Revilla is a forgery constitutes as a great blow to the prosecution. It could not be assumed anymore that Revilla acknowledged the signatures appearing on the endorsement letters to the IAs (Implementing Agencies) to be his own or that of his authorised representative. Besides, the purported signatures found on the endorsement letters addressed to the IAs appear to be pointedly different from the standard signatures of Revilla,” the court said.
The court also found that none of the prosecution witnesses, including Benhur Luy, Merlina Sunas, Marina Sula and Mary Arlene Baltazar, admitted depositing money representing commissions to Revilla’s accounts.
“Not one of them testified that they personally handed money or saw anyone handing/delivering money to Revilla as commission/kickback,” it said.
Revilla is one of three former senators charged with plunder and graft in connection with the pork barrel scam. The other two, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, are out on bail.
Enrile, Estrada and Revilla are running for senator in next year’s mid-term elections.
Estrada and his wife were at the Sandiganbayan when the verdict was read.
“His legal victory is somehow also my victory. We have been wrongly accused and incarcerated for years for something we did not do,” Estrada said.
“Thankfully, the courts have decided in our favour. I have been granted bail because the evidence against me is weak. And now Senator Bong has been acquitted,” he added.
Also present during the promulgation were Revilla’s wife, Bacoor City Mayor Lani Mercado-Revilla, and their children, including Cavite Vice Governor Jolo Revilla.
Cavite 2nd District representative Strike Revilla said his brother’s acquittal was the “best Christmas gift.”
“Our family is thankful that Senator Bong will finally be free, and this is our best Christmas gift. We thank our God, the people of Cavite, and our supporters for this wonderful present,” he said.
The lawmaker said it was a great relief for the family to welcome home Revilla who was “incarcerated and denied justice for years.”
“We thank them (justices) for being fair,” Strike said.
Meanwhile, the Lakas-Christian Muslims Democrats (CMD) party said the decision would boost Revilla’s senatorial bid.
Revilla is the chairman of the party.
The trial of the plunder case filed against Revilla started in June 2017. The prosecution finished presenting its evidence in October.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Friday, a crusader against pork barrel, expressed mixed emotions upon learning of Revilla’s acquittal.
Lacson said that as a former colleague and friend, he was happy for Revilla. “As a strong advocate against the pork barrel system, I feel weak and defeated.”
“As a legislator who knows the justice system, I respect the decision of the Sandiganbayan, for they, more than anyone have better appreciation of the evidence,” he said in a text message.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said he could not “comprehend” the anti-graft court’s decision.
“How can the one who bribed is declared guilty and the one bribed was not guilty? It’s quite difficult to understand the decision of the court,” he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd and Sen. Ralph Recto also said they were happy for Revilla and his family.
“I will most probably see him back in the Senate next year.” Sotto said.
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