Ex-President Aquino faces criminal raps over Mamasapano encounter, cleared of homicide

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 14) — Former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III has been cleared of homicide charges over the bloody Mamasapano encounter in January 2015, but the Ombudsman said he was still "liable."

In a resolution approved Friday, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered the filing of criminal charges against Aquino for usurpation of authority under the Revised Penal Code and violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

"The complaint for reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide is dismissed for lack of probable cause," the Ombudsman added.

What Aquino did wrong, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said, was to allow then Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Alan Purisima to play a major role in the Mamasapano operation despite being under preventive suspension.

If found guilty, Aquino faces imprisonment of up to 10 years, with perpetual disqualification from public office.

The Ombudsman suspended Purisima in December 2014 due to an anomalous 2011 deal involving WerFast Documentary Agency, a courier company tasked with delivering gun licenses directly to applicants.

"There is no gainsaying that President Aquino was fully aware that the Office of the Ombudsman had placed Purisima under preventive suspension at that time," Morales said.

Text messages presented at a Senate hearing in February 2015 showed Aquino and Purisima discussed the operation on January 25.

Forty-four members of the PNP's Special Action Forces (SAF), known as the SAF 44, were killed that day after an encounter with Moro rebels in the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao, despite a ceasefire.

Morales said suspended public officials should be barred from performing any public function or meddling with the affairs of the government.

Under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code, any person who shall perform duties of a public officer "without being lawfully entitled to do so, shall suffer the penalty of prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods" or six months to six years imprisonment.

The anti-graft law also states, "it shall be unlawful for any public officer to persuade, induce or influence another public officer to perform an act constituting a violation of rules and regulations duly promulgated by competent authority."

Aquino's former Deputy Presidential Spokesperson, Abigail Valte said the former president will file a motion for reconsideration to appeal the "erroneous conclusion."

She said Aquino "received the order of the Ombudsman this afternoon and is currently studying it with his lawyers, with the end view of filing a motion for reconsideration."

Hoping for closure

Malacañang on Friday welcomed the Ombudsman's decision.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella in a statement said President Rodrigo Duterte is one with the country in hoping "to finally bring justice to the victims and families of the Fallen 44 and put closure to the issue as part of the healing process."

Senator Grace Poe, who was chair of the Senate committee on public order which investigated the Mamasapano tragedy in 2015, said Aquino should also be allowed to present his defense.

"We do hope that in the end, justice will truly be served," Poe said.

Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson said he is praying for his friend and former colleague at the Senate to "be able to withstand the pressure," advising him to get the best lawyers.

Aquino's first cousin, Senator Bam Aquino said the family is "confident that former President Aquino will sufficiently answer the charges laid before him and be vindicated."

Criminal negligence

Aside from the 44 police commandos, police said at least 18 rebels and five civilians were killed in the botched Mamasapano operation that was meant to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias "Marwan."

The Ombudsman earlier cleared Aquino of any liability, when it charged only Purisima, then SAF Commander Getulio Napeñas Jr., and nine other police officers in July 2015, when Aquino was still in power. In its latest resolution, the Ombudsman said they are all "co-conspirators."

Twenty-four hours after stepping down from the presidency on July 1, 2016, Aquino was slapped with a criminal complaint from several relatives of the SAF 44, who accused him of reckless imprudence resulting in 44 homicides.

Three complaints were filed against Aquino and his co-accused, citing "criminal negligence."

They said Aquino approved "Oplan Exodus" with full knowledge that it was flawed.

In his 27-page counter-affidavit filed on January 26 this year, Aquino maintained he had no criminal liability in the gruesome incident.

He also said he did not send the SAF 44 to their deaths, following President Duterte's comment that he "fed the soldiers to the lion's den, to be eaten by death." Duterte said this before relatives of the slain soldiers, in a dinner to commemorate the second anniversary of the tragic incident.

Also read: Two years after Mamasapano, Duterte tells Aquino: 'You have to answer to the nation'

Aquino said he ordered the SAF to coordinate with the military but they disobeyed, while Napeñas said Aquino must be held responsible as well.

Senate hearings into the Mamasapano tragedy showed that the military was only informed of the covert operation on the day itself, but the police said it was "time on target" information, to avoid a compromise.

CNN Philippines' AC Nicholls and Ella Hermonio contributed to this report.