MANILA (Updated) -- Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre has called for investigation into the meeting among opposition lawmakers and local leaders of Marawi City, weeks before the Maute terror group laid siege on the southern city.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Aguirre said Senators Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aquino and Antonio Trillanes IV, along with Magdalo Party-list Representative Gary Alejano and Ronald Llamas, former political adviser of then President Benigno Aquino III, held a meeting with local leaders at the Lake View Resort Hotel in Marawi on May 2.
"Hindi ko malaman why after they went there e nagkagulo na after about two weeks, they met with the people there, they met with several families, Aquirre added.
The meeting took place weeks before clashes between the Maute terror group and government forces started on May 23, which prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the entire Mindanao.
Although he refused to connect the said meeting to the attacks perpetrated by Maute group, Aguirre said "it's possible, it's probable" that the said meeting had "agitated" local groups in the city.
He said the efforts of the opposition legislators to meet in Marawi could be a part of their plan to destabilize the Duterte administration.
The Justice Secretary said he did not want to connect the P52 million in cash discovered from the hideout of the Maute group in Marawi to the alleged meeting between the legislators and local officials.
He said he would only investigate the connection if there is enough evidence linking the cash discovered and the alleged secret meeting.
Aguirre who showed to the media a photograph of the said meeting said he would gather more details from an alleged asset present at the meeting.
Aquino cautioned the Justice Secretary to verify and weigh the evidence before making false accusations against the minority lawmakers.
"Is fake news enough for the head of our country's Department of Justice to make these outrageous allegations?" Aquino asked.
Aquino said that there was never any meeting among the individuals mentioned by Aguirre, adding that on May 2 he was commencement speaker at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines at the Philippine International Convention Center and attended session at the Senate.
"My trip to Marawi was on May 19, 2017 to launch the first Negosyo Center in the Armm (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) and I had with me an AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) escort throughout my trip, which can easily be verified through the AFP," he said.
The senator also said that Trade Secretary Mon Lopez had confirmed that he was in Marawi City for the Negosyo Center launch and moreover, Vice Governor Bombit Adiong, Brigadier General Rolando Joselito Bautista and General Nixon Fortes were also with him during the event.
Aquino, who authored the Go Negosyo Law, was in Marawi to attend the launch of Armm's first Negosyo Center.
"These are easily verifiable for anyone who cares to find the truth. It would be prudent for Secretary Aguirre to clarify dates, seek evidence and request for official statements from legitimate government agencies before he makes yet another false accusation," the senator said.
Aquino was dismayed that the Marawi tragedy could have been an opportunity to unite the country against a common enemy, but instead, the Aguirre has used it to further political interests and further divide the country.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, for his part, said that while Aquino was in Marawi, he was in Cagayan de Oro City and they met up at the airport.
Gatchalian also cautioned against reckless accusations as he called for fairness and real evidence.
"In the end, it all boils down to evidence. I think we should also be very careful with linking people with whatever instances dahil masisira yung reputation ng tao kung wala naman connection. Let’s be fair," Gatchalian said.
Trillanes, on other hand, called Aguirre's accusations linking him in the Marawi siege as malicious.
"For the record, I am not involved in any way with the Maute group or the Marawi incident. Secretary (Delfin) Lorenzana said so himself. I also did not have any meeting in Marawi in May 2 since I haven't visited Marawi for the past three years. But don't take my word for it, simply check the Senate records for May 2," Trillanes said in a statement.
"The incompetence of Aguirre is only matched by his stupidity. I would advise him to avoid getting his intel from Facebook conspiracy theorists," the senator added. (SunStar Philippines)