MANILA (Updated) -- The Court of Appeals (CA) has acquitted pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles in the serious illegal detention case filed against her by pork barrel scam whistleblower Benhur Luy.
In a decision dated May 5, the CA 12th division reversed the ruling of the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) branch 150 finding Napoles guilty of Luy's serious illegal detention in 2012.
The CA ordered the immediate release of Napoles from Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City where she is being detained since 2015.
Luy had claimed that he was illegally detained by Napoles from December 20, 2012 up to March 23, 2013 at a retreat house in Makati City.
According to the CA's decision, the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt Napoles' alleged involvement in Luy's illegal detention.
The CA noted lack of evidence in reversing the trial court's ruling.
"We hold that the evidence against [Napoles] is not sufficient to establish her participation or culpability in the alleged criminal conspiracy. The prosecution has not discharged its burden of proof in establishing the commission of the crime charged and in identifying [Napoles] as the malefactor responsible for it," read the CA decision penned by Associate Justice Norandie Pizarro.
The CA further said that there is no proof that Luy was forced or involuntarily brought and confined in Bahay ni San Jose retreat house and that there was enough evidence to establish the he has only undergone spiritual retreat in the said place, as claimed by Napoles.
"Benhur attended mass every night with the priests residing in Bahay ni San Jose. He also maintained a journal covering the period of his stay in Bahay ni San Jose which contained biblical verses and references," the ruling added.
It further said that Luy's inaction to his illegal detention is questionable.
"To our mind, it is completely baffling and unexplainable how a man who alleges illegal detention had no sense of urgency to escape or seek help, at least during the later part of his alleged detention, despite the grave offense committed against him," the CA said.
The CA decision came three months after Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the CA to acquit Napoles as the Makati RTC erred in its April 2015 ruling convicting Napoles of up to 40 years imprisonment.
Calida also told the appellate court that the evidence of the prosecution against Napoles is weak.
The solicitor general then pointed out that the dismissal of the serious illegal detention case against Napoles will not affect the other cases filed against her in relation to her alleged involvement in the misuse of some lawmakers' Priority Development Assistance Fund.
Calida lauds Napoles acquittal
In a statement issued Monday, Calida lauded the CA for absolving Napoles in the serious illegal detention of Luy.
"I commend the magistrates of the 12th Division of the Court of Appeals for doing what is right based on the evidence before them," Calida said.
Calida reiterated that Napoles' serious illegal detention case will not affect the trial of her plunder, malversation cases at the Sandiganbayan in relation to the alleged misuse of some congressmen and senators' PDAF.
The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) last January 11 filed a Manifestation with the CA in Lieu of a Rejoinder, stating that the evidence presented by the prosecution did not support the conviction beyond reasonable doubt of Napoles, therefore she must be acquitted.
According to Calida, the OSG has also found that the evidence against Napoles is weak.
He has also questioned the failure of Luy to seek help from the priests inside the retreat house and also for resisting the rescue conducted by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation.
According to Calida, the position of the OSG in this case was consistent with its mandate as People's Tribune.
"This was not the first time that the OSG, as People's Tribune, took a position favorable to an accused in a criminal case," Calida said.
"Some sectors make a big deal out of this case because it involves Janet Lim Napoles. However, as the principal lawyer of the Republic, this is just a simple criminal case wherein the evidence does not support the conviction of the accused," he added.
The solicitor general noted that in the past, the OSG has also recommended the acquittal of the accused in appealed criminal cases whenever the evidence falls short of the proof beyond reasonable doubt.
Calida, whose move was questioned by different sectors, has repeatedly denied that his position to acquit the alleged pork barrel scam mastermind was ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte.
'Napoles acquittal won't affect 'pork' cases'
At Malacanang, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Napoles' acquittal from the serious illegal detention case of Luy would not impinge on the plunder cases lodged against her.
Abella, in a statement, guaranteed that the government would not give Napoles preferential treatment to absolve her of plunder charges, contrary to the theory of critics of President Rodrigo Duterte that he is favoring her.
"The Court of Appeals acquitting Ms. Janet Napoles involves her illegal detention case. It has no direct impact on her pork-barrel cases," the presidential spokesperson said.
"Government is clear that there is no policy shift on how we deal with Napoles. Neither there is an agreement forged between the Duterte administration and Napoles," he added.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, for his part, said that the government has "very strong" evidence to prove that Napoles pocketed Priority Development Assistance Funds through bogus non-government organizations.
"Certainly, the government has very strong case against her. Moreover, the legal intention has nothing to do with the plunder case filed against her," Panelo said.
Abella said Duterte will not attempt to influence the judicial branch, a co-equal branch of the executive department, in favor of Napoles.
"President Duterte has repeatedly asserted the independence of the three branches of government. He has vowed not to interfere with the decisions of the judiciary or legislature, and assures the people that he will respect and not influence the results of their decision," Abella said.
"The tri-partite separation of powers will be strictly observed under this administration," he added. (With Ruth Abbey Gita/SunStar Philippines)