Philippines lifts criminal cases on botched rescue

AP News
Posted: Oct 11, 2010 8:19 AM
Philippines lifts criminal cases on botched rescue

The Philippine president Monday spared top police and security officials from criminal prosecution for a bungled hostage rescue in which eight Hong Kong tourists died, drawing criticism from a survivor.

President Benigno Aquino III said seven officials instead would face administrative actions. The National Police Commission and the Interior Department would investigate them for administrative lapses including gross incompetence, neglect of duty and misconduct. Possible sanctions include dismissal without pay.

A fired police officer, Rolando Mendoza, took dozens of Hong Kong tourists hostage on a bus in August to push his demand that he be reinstated. The drama played out for 11 hours before the gunman opened fire at the hostages and police finally broke into the bus and killed him.

In Hong Kong, a survivor who was freed in the early hours of the hostage-taking, was upset that Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim escaped criminal charges.

"He made the most mistakes. He is the leader, so he should be punished. Now the government has just found a few scapegoats," 72-year-old Li Yick-biu told reporters.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials did not immediately react Monday, but the bungled rescue has damaged their relations with the Philippines. They warned against travel there, and thousands of tourists canceled bookings.

Aquino, less than two months into a presidency he pledged would fight corruption and incompetence, sought to placate leaders in China and Hong Kong with an investigation he said was conducted with speed and fairness.

"I pledged from the very start that there would be accountability," Aquino told reporters Monday, adding that apart from the administrative action, the government was taking steps to improve the training of security forces.

Adopting most of the recommendations of a fact-finding committee led by the justice secretary, Aquino said he was backing the initiation of administrative proceedings against Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay, police director Leocadio Santiago, Lim as well as two senior police operatives.

Among other lapses, the report blamed Magtibay and Lim for leaving the scene for a restaurant before the hostage-taker started shooting the captives. The police chief allegedly defied Aquino's order to deploy an elite police commando team and instead used local SWAT members, the report said.

Magtibay was relieved shortly after the fiasco, while Lim, himself a former Manila police chief, had angrily denied the allegations. It will be up to Aquino to decide what administrative sanctions Lim should face while the cases of the police officers will be left to their superiors.

Initial reactions to the president's actions were mixed.

The fact-finding committee led by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said it believed the sanctions announced by Aquino "will put closure to the issue of accountability" in the hostage-taking crisis, adding the president acted "judiciously."

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Critics, however, scored Aquino for the light punishment imposed on officials.

"That national officials got away with a slap on the wrist is not consistent with the pledge of accountability made by this administration," the left-wing alliance Bayan said.

Although the government panel recommended that Lim and one of Aquino's closest aides, Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno, should be investigated for possible criminal liability stemming from a failure to exercise supervisory powers, the president made no such decision.

Aquino chided two radio journalists accused of tying up the hostage-taker's telephone line by interviewing him during the standoff. Their interference bordered on the criminal, Aquino said, but he stopped short of recommending legal action against them.

"We expect this kind of unprofessional behavior not to be repeated again, or we could be compelled to ask Congress for appropriate regulations to protect the safety of the public, our security forces and media itself," he said.


Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila and Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.