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Nueva Vizcaya lumber smuggler gets life term
 

The Supreme Court has sentenced a contractor in Bayombong, Nueva
Vizcaya and two others to life imprisonment for violation of the Anti-Timber
Smuggling Law, reversing their acquittal by the Court of Appeals.

In a decision penned by Associate Justice Romeo Callejo Sr., the high
court affirmed the decision of Judge Jose Rosales of the regional trial court
here that found contractor Efren Almuete, Johnny Ila and Joel Lloren
guilty of violation of Presidential Decree 705 or the Forestry Reform Code.

The Inquirer tried but failed to contact Almuete for comment on Sunday.
An aide said he was in Metro Manila for an "urgent matter."

Almuete's case has become one of the most controversial lawsuits
pursued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The decision stemmed from a case filed in 1993 by the DENR against
Almuete,owner of ESA Construction Inc., and his two co-accused for smuggling
4,751 board feet of illegally cut lumber.

The high court sustained the verdict of the RTC promulgated on Sept. 8,
1998, sentencing Almuete and his two co-accused to a minimum of 18
years and a maximum of 40 years in prison.

It overturned the CA decision, dated May 9, 2000, acquitting Almuete
and ordering a "re-promulgation" on the cases of Ila and Lloren.

"The appellate court (CA) acted with grave abuse of its discretion when
it ventured beyond the sphere of its authority and arrogated itself ...
the authority to review perceived errors of the (RTC) in the exercise of
its judgment and discretion," the high court said.

The lumber shipment, carried by two trucks, was seized by DENR
personnel at Barangay Uddiawan in Solano town on Aug. 15, 1993.

After conviction by the RTC in 1998, Almuete and his aides filed an
appeal.The CA voided the RTC decision for having been issued "with undue
haste" because of the absence of the three accused during the promulgation.

The accused also claimed that the penalty of 18 to 40 years of
imprisonment imposed by the trial court was excessive.

The high court, however, disproved the CA's claim. "We do not discern
any abuse of discretion in the trial court's promulgation of its decision,"
it said.