SC orders transfer of Virac drug lab cases trial to Makati RTC

MANILA — The Supreme Court (SC) ordered the transfer of venue of the illegal drug cases against a former official of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and eight others linked to the “mega shabu” laboratory discovered in Virac, Catanduanes in 2016.

In an en banc resolution dated June 19 but was released to media on Monday, the SC granted the request of former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to transfer the cases against former NBI Anti-Illegal Drugs Unit head Augusto Eric Isidoro from the Virac Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 43 to the Makati RTC.

“(The Court resolved to) Direct the branch of clerk of Court, Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 43 Virac, Cantanduanes to forward the records of the foresaid criminal cases to the Office of Executive Judge RTC, Makati City,” said the resolution signed by SC Clerk of Court Edgar Aricheta.

The SC also directed the Executive Judge, RTC, Makati City to raffle the subject criminal cases among the branches of the said court within three days from receipt of the record.

In a four-page request letter, Aguirre said the prosecution panel has filed a motion seeking for the inhibition of Virac RTC Branch 43 Judge Lelu Contreras from the case due to delays in the issuance of a search warrant for the site where the drug lab was located. Contreras was the same judge who issued the search warrant.

Aguirre said that on Nov. 25, 2016, the judge told policemen who were requesting for a search warrant that she would only issue a certification if authorities could prove that the warehouse has no building permit.

The following day, police were surprised to see at the warehouse the judge, Virac Mayor Samuel Laynes, and Isidro’s wife Angelica Balmadrid-Isidro.

Though Contreras decided to issue the search warrant, Aguirre lamented that “despite the urgency, the presiding judge was not seen in her chambers the whole afternoon” and “it was almost night time of Nov. 26, 2016 when (the) search warrant… was issued”.

“This would also obviate the need for elaborate security arrangements for the state prosecutors and the witnesses as well. The transfer of venue will also insulate the proceedings from influence of threats from any groups affiliated with the accused,” Aguirre said in his letter.

The former DOJ chief said that after a motion to inhibit was filed against her, the judge issued an order dated last March 21 directing the director of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s (PDEA) office in the Bicol region to proceed with the destruction of the shabu, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals, as well as the instruments and laboratory equipment seized from the warehouse.

He said the destruction of the drug evidence “is premature and highly prejudicial to the prosecution”.

Aguirre raised not only the alleged impartiality of Contreras but also the “political connection” of the accused.

“In addition to the impartiality of the presiding judge, the accused in these cases are politically connected and likewise yield an influence in the community. Thus, there is an imperious necessity to change the venue of trial of these cases,” he said.

Aside from Isidro, also named as respondents were Xian Xian Wang, Pido Bonito, Paolo Uy, Jayson Gonzales Uy, Lorenzo Flores Piñera II, Kidot Paolo Wee Palisoc, Phung Yuan Estorco, and Sheng Wang.

The case stemmed from the mega shabu laboratory inside a warehouse that authorities discovered and raided in Virac on Nov. 26, 2016.

Police seized in the operation 22.509 kilos of shabu and 359.75 kilos of ephedrine, as well as other equipment and chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu.