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President Aquino dumbfounded as ex-general ‘let off hook’

MANILA, December 20, 2010 (AFP) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Monday he was left scratching his head after an ex-general accused of stealing nearly seven million dollars struck a deal to avoid a life sentence.

Aquino said he had asked his advisers to explore ways to undo the damage caused by the plea bargain under which Carlos Garcia, who retired from the military in disrepute and in jail, could be let off with time already served.

“If we fail to secure commensurate punishment for the guilty, it would be a blow to our campaign against corruption,” he told reporters.

“We want to know how this happened. We want to check if there are still remedial steps that we can take to protect the people’s interest. We were extremely disappointed,” the president added.

Garcia posted bail last week after pleading guilty to lesser charges of bribery and money laundering so he could avoid being tried for “plunder,” or massive corruption, which is punishable by life in jail.

He also agreed to return some of the funds he was accused of stealing, and if the court approves the deal he could avoid going back to prison having already served six years, said the clerk of the graft court handling the case.

Garcia and his family were accused of amassing over 300 million pesos (6.8 million dollars) during his term as comptroller of the armed forces, in a case which shocked the nation.

The general’s crimes came to light in 2003 after his two sons were stopped by US customs officials, allegedly as they tried to smuggle 100,000 dollars into the United States.

Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the plea-bargain called for the disgraced ex-officer to return some, but not all, of the allegedly plundered funds to the government.

“I understand the plea bargain was 130 million pesos, but the assets that were allegedly ill-gotten were more than that, more than 300 million pesos, so we are at a loss why they did that,” Lacierda told reporters.

Justice Secretary Lilian de Lima described the plea bargain, struck with the office of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, as “a betrayal of public trust” and said that it opened up the prospect of Gutierrez’s impeachment by parliament.

She said a special prosecutor working at the Ombudsman’s office had actually struck the deal, but suggested this official could not have done so without Gutierrez’s approval.

“It is doubtful that it had been entered into solely with the best interest of the country in mind,” De Lima said.

She urged Aquino to go after the special prosecutors for allegedly violating the rules of court.

Under the rules, De Lima said, pleading to a lesser offense could be allowed only before the start of the trial and not when it is well under way, as had allegedly happened in the Garcia case.

Aquino won a landslide election victory in May after pledging to crack down on corruption.

Gutierrez could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.

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