Acquitted of plunder, Bong Revilla out on bail on graft charges

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 7) — Former Senator Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. is a free man after four years in jail on plunder and graft charges.

The Sandiganbayan issued a release order for Revilla on Friday, the same day he was acquitted of plunder in the controversial pork barrel scam case.

The anti-graft court also lifted the hold departure order issued against Revilla, effectively allowing him to leave the country.

"After 4 years and almost 6 months, finally makakalabas na din ako, at lumabas din ang katotohanan," Revilla said as he left the Philippine National Police Custodial Center where he was detained in 2014. He thanked his supporters for praying for him.

But before walking free, the former lawmaker had to pay P480, 000 in bail for 16 graft cases he continues to face. All the cases are related to the pork barrel scandal but allow Revilla to post bail for his temporary freedom.

In its 186-page decision, the Sandiganbayn's first division ruled that the the prosecution failed to prove that Revilla was guilty beyond reasonable doubt for plunder. It said there was "not a single direct evidence" presented that Revilla benefited from the use of his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

"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," the court ruled.

Revilla's co-accused in the plunder case, alleged pork scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles and Revilla's staff Richard Cambe, were found guilty. The two were sentenced to reclusion perpetua or a maximum of 40 years in prison.

READ: Napoles, Revilla staff can't plunder alone – dissenting justices

Napoles will be detained at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong, while Cambe will head to the New Bilibid Prison. Other co-accused, Napoles' relative Ronald Lim and employee John Raymund de Asis, remain at large.

The court ordered the accused to return P124.5 million to the government. Revilla's lawyers said Revilla is excluded from the order because only Napoles and Cambe have civil liability.

"Pursuant to Article 100 of the Revised Penal Code, accused are held solidarily and jointly liable to return to the National Treasury the amount of P124.5 million," court said.

The anti-graft court's first division was forced to create a special division of five justices in the case after its three regular members reached an impasse. Associate Justices Geraldine Econg, Edgardo Caldona, Georgina Dumpit-Hidalgo voted to acquit Revilla, while justices Efren dela Cruz and Maria Theresa Gomez-Estoesta ruled to convict him.

Econg, the justice who wrote the verdict, said the court had to decide based on evidence provided.

"It is an unpopular decision. I would have loved to be a heroine, that I convicted him, but at the end of the day we are bound by evidence," she said in a statement released after the verdict was handed down.

The decision came four and a half years after Revilla's plunder case was filed by the Ombudsman in 2014. It is the first case to be resolved among dozens others in the pork barrel scandal.

Revilla, who is seeking a return to the Senate in the 2019 midterm elections, was accused of amassing P224.5 million in kickbacks from Napoles when he was still in office.

The money was allegedly in exchange for endorsing her five bogus non-government organizations as beneficiaries of his PDAF, or the funds allocated to a lawmaker for his projects.

An estimated P10 billion in government funds were allegedly lost in the scam, with money going into the pockets of Napoles and several lawmakers.

Malacañang lauded the court for reaching a verdict although it took years.

"While justice grinds so slow most of the time, it does grind, and when it stops it renders a verdict that is exacting immutable. Regardless of the sentiments to the contrary, we have to bow down to the judgement of the Sandiganbayan. We have consistently respected the independence of the Judiciary and we will continue to do so in this case as we implement the final orders of the anti-graft court on the matter," Presidential Spokesperson Sal Panelo said in a statement.

PDAF scam

In September 2013, the Department of Justice filed plunder, graft and corrupt practices, malversation, and bribery charges against Napoles, then-Senators Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Jinggoy Estrada, and at least 32 other people for their involvement in the scam. Two months later, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to declare all congressional pork barrel laws unconstitutional.

After finding probable cause to indict the accused, the Ombudsman filed separate plunder charges against the three former lawmakers in June 2014. The Sandiganbayan ordered their arrest later that month, leading to Revilla's surrender and detention in Camp Crame.

Both Estrada and Enrile were also detained but were eventually allowed to post bail.

Revilla's plunder trial began in June 2017, a little over three years after the case was filed. There were several delays due to the various motions he filed before the court.

The trial took a major turn in June 2018 after a whistleblower in the scandal backtracked on her 2016 testimony against Revilla.

She said she did not personally see the former senator receive money from Napoles. She clarified that she saw Benhur Luy, a relative and former Napoles employee, forge Revilla's signature on endorsement letters for the release of his pork barrel funds to the fake NGOs.

The whistleblower claimed she had been coached by prosecutors from the Office of the Ombudsman to corroborate the statements of Luy against Revilla.

CNN Philippines' Lara Tan, Eimor Santos, AC Nicholls, and Carolyn Bonquin contributed to this report.