IT’S NOW IN P-NOY’S HANDS

09/18/2010 - Manila—Investigators yesterday submitted to President Aquino their findings on the Aug. 23 hostage tragedy, but Malacañang withheld the immediate release of the names of the 12 people found responsible for a fiasco that embarrassed the country before the world.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and members of the special fact-finding committee she chairs handed Aquino their 83-page report.

De Lima and Palace officials declined to reveal the names of those deemed accountable until after the President has pored over the report.

Panel members earlier said they would recommend charges against government officials and police officers as well as members of the media, whose live coverage of the bloody hostage drama provoked controversy over how much leeway journalists should have in covering crisis situations.

“I cannot answer that. Otherwise, I will be preempting the President," De Lima told reporters before meeting Mr. Aquino in Malacañang, when asked for the names of those to be blamed for the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists on a bus seized by a dismissed Manila policeman.

The President received the panel's report around 4:15 p.m.

After a meeting between Mr. Aquino and the panel lasting more than four hours, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said the Philippine government would first inform the Chinese authorities of the findings of the committee before sharing them with the media.

"We will issue a statement within the next few days," he said.

Carandang indicated the Aquino administration would like to give Chinese authorities the "courtesy" of hearing directly from the Philippine side first, instead of learning about the report's contents from the media.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials were dismayed by the bungled police efforts to resolve the hostage saga without bloodshed.

In a letter to the President, De Lima vowed her panel would pursue efforts "to ensure that this matter reaches its logical conclusion and that those responsible for the tragic end of the incident are held accountable."

Expressing sorrow over what happened, De Lima said: "It was difficult to contain our mixed emotions as the Aug. 23, 2010, events unraveled as we went about our investigation."

"We are hopeful that ... given our limitations, we have set into motion the actions and the course towards giving justice to the families of the victims of the tragic and despicable incident."

The letter described the panel's submission as "the First Report."

De Lima said the report contained the observations, conclusions and recommendations of the five-member panel.

De Lima the other day said that "more or less 10 will be recommended (to face charges)." Asked by reporters yesterday how many would be charged, she said: "Twelve." She did not elaborate.

Asked earlier how high the officials were who had been found accountable, she said, "High enough." But she stressed the panel was not a quasi-judicial body and could only make recommendations.

The 11-hour standoff, in which the hostage-taker was also shot dead, triggered international condemnation of the local police and exposed the fledgling Aquino administration to global ridicule.

The so-called Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) heard testimony from more than 20 people during five days of hearings.

"It's a relief to all of us that we have finished with the investigation after two weeks," Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a panel member, told reporters. "It was not easy because we had to investigate our fellow government workers."

He said determining the accountability of individuals directly involved in the mess was the most difficult part of the investigation.

"That's why I did not involve [myself] in the accountability part. It's better if we let those who are not suspected of being biased do that," he said.

"It's also better for somebody who not only have a better point of view of the preparation, but also have a better perception, to come up with a very objective (report)."

Robredo's inclusion in the committee has stirred criticisms from lawmakers, including those allied with Mr. Aquino.

As secretary of the Department of the Interior and the Local Government, Robredo should also be liable for the ineptness of the police in handling life-threatening events, several senators and congressmen said.

Robredo said the committee report was not intended to please Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

"This is not a question of satisfying them but a question of truth," the local government secretary said.

"Whether or not they'll be satisfied, we did our best to ensure that we can unearth the true facts and make judgment based on these facts," he added.

Robredo also said the panel's proceedings were not intended to exonerate certain public officials close to Mr. Aquino.

"It's beyond me or the organization. It's for the country. We just (focused on) the facts. We thought this is more important for the country than for us," he said.

He said he was confident that Mr. Aquino would respect the contents of the report, brushing off speculation that the President might try to save his allies who may be indicted.

"I don't think the President would do that. He created the panel because he was also after the truth," he said.

"The President wants closure on this."

He said the panel was preparing for the second phase of its investigation—find out institutional problems which could have contributed to the tragedy.

"It's something I'm looking forward to. It's more of asking them how can we improve after all of these," he said.

Before meeting the panel members, Mr. Aquino received an advanced copy of the report so he could go through the findings before discussing them with the panel.

"The President was provided this morning with an advance copy so he could have the opportunity to go over it for possible discussion with the IIRC," Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.

A high-level delegation to be led by Vice President Jejomar Binay is expected to bring a copy of the report to Beijing and Hong Kong.

Sacked Manila policeman Rolando Mendoza, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, hijacked the bus full of Hong Kong tourists in a desperate bid to get his job back and clear his name of extortion charges.

Police have admitted missing repeated chances to take out the hostage-taker. (Cebu Daily News)

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