MANILA, Philippines?The Department of Justice is preparing economic sabotage or plunder charges that carry a life sentence against traders found to be hoarding rice, the price of which has risen sharply amid a tight global supply.
Although the country has yet to experience a shortage, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez Thursday vowed to hale to court hoarders and other unscrupulous rice traders for acts ?inimical to the public interest.?
Gonzalez mentioned Chinese rice traders, but was quick to point out that ?Filipino millers, for example, were also trying to take advantage? of the ?emergency situation.?
Gonzalez confirmed the existence of Chinese rice cartels in the country, but added: ?We will not engage in witch-hunt.? The justice secretary said the newly sworn Chinese-Filipino officials had talked to the President about it.
Gonzalez was responding to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s order last week to crack down on hoarders and retailers mislabeling government-subsidized rice as commercial varieties.
On Wednesday, the DOJ created the Anti-Rice Hoarding Task Force.
The President ordered the crackdown to help avert a rice shortage, which could trigger social unrest.
She has also ordered huge imports of rice from neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand, and cancelled permits to rice dealers reselling state-subsidized rice to avoid artificial price hikes.
Rising rice prices prompted the President to allot P5 billion as a subsidy to rice farmers and to increase the National Food Authority?s buying price for palay (unhusked rice) by 42 percent.
In an interview after she administered the oath of office to the new officers of the Chinese-Filipino Business Club Inc., the President Thursday said that DOJ officials ?have started prosecuting.?
?We started in Cebu. We are also trying to get the names of those warehouses (in Bulacan raided by the National Bureau of Investigation),? Gonzalez said.
Following a raid on Tuesday, the NFA suspended the rice allocations of 21 accredited retailers in Cebu province found to have committed violations, including overpricing.
On the same day, in Bocaue, Bulacan, a joint team from the NFA, NBI and Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group raided several warehouses following reports that some traders in the town were hoarding rice.
Raided was the Inter-city Industrial Estate, which houses some 115 warehouses, according to Roland Argabioso, chief of the NBI Field Operations Division. Argabioso said each warehouse held 25,000 to 40,000 sacks of rice.
Raid in Mandaue
In Mandaue City, a joint team of the NFA and NBI raided a warehouse on Wednesday night and found 30,000 sacks of rice imported from Vietnam.
Also on Wednesday, authorities raided two warehouses in Quezon City, including one owned by a brother of Pangasinan Vice Gov. Marlyn Primicias-Agabas.
The moves angered rice dealers and distributors, who have threatened to stop selling rice across the country.
Legit traders need not fear
Gonzalez said only rice hoarders were being targeted, and that traders and warehouse owners found to be ?legit need not fear.?
?This is an emergency situation, they should understand,? he said.
Warehouse not NFA-registered
The raiding team in Mandaue was armed with a search warrant issued by a Cebu Regional Trial Court judge against the owner of the warehouse in Barangay Cabancalan.
The team conducted the raid after NFA-7 Director Danilo Bonabon confirmed that former Cebu Port Authority general manager Mariano Martinez, who owns the warehouse, did not have a license from the NFA.
But the owner of the rice stocks, businessman Regan King, complained that the move was a form of ?harassment? against him, ?a legal importer and wholesaler of rice.?
In an interview on radio station dyLa Thursday, King said his company, Jolli Traders International, which was registered with the NFA, was renting the warehouse.
He said his company had a special power of attorney from a farmers? cooperative in Luzon that allowed him to import rice directly from Vietnam.
King said he and another businessman in Cebu had been engaging in the importation of rice through Philippine International Trading Corp. He added that he had been engaged in the importation of rice for three years.
Instructions to NBI
Gonzalez said the Anti-Rice Hoarding Task Force would coordinate with law enforcement and administrative agencies to facilitate the prosecution of rice hoarders.
?Our first initiative is ask for the help of the Filipinos who can give us information because we are not here to witch-hunt, but see to it that the crimes, if at all, will have to be stopped,? he said, assuring those to be charged of ?due process.?
He said he had instructed the NBI ?to be very rigid? in looking for evidence.
But Gonzalez said newspapers? lead could also help, ?that?s why Thursday I gave a clipping of the Inquirer story to the panel because they?re all enumerated there.?
He was apparently referring to the Philippine Daily Inquirer story published Wednesday on the suspended 21 retailers in Cebu for overpricing and the 115 warehouses raided in Bocaue, Bulacan.
Acting on text message sent by concerned citizens, NFA officials and operatives of the Quezon City Police District Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit swooped down on the storehouse of Jacob Rice Dealer in Parkway Village in Barangay Apolonio Samson at around 5 p.m.
Supt. Franklin Moises Mabanag, QCPD-CIDU chief, said Mariza Chua and her brother-in-law, Jerry Chua, were the registered owners of the establishment.
Mabanag said the team was ?looking at the possibility? that several sacks of cheap NFA rice had been mixed with commercial rice inside the warehouse after the team seized at least 750 empty sacks with ?NFA? markings from the area.
Two hours later, the group raided the storeroom of RLP Rice Dealer on No. 17 Vista Real Subdivision in Barangay Old Balara.
Mabanag said the store was owned by Roger Primicias, an older brother of Primicias-Agabas.
Vice governor surprised
Mabanag, who led the raid, said the team met with the vice governor who happened to be at the place during the inspection. He said Primicias-Agabas was visibly surprised upon seeing the raiding team.
?The vice governor said the house was actually owned by their family. She said she stayed at the place after visiting the wake of a relative,? Mabanag told the Inquirer.
Mabanag said the team immediately cleared Roger Primicias of any offense after he presented pertinent documents about the rice stocks in his warehouse.
Primicias Thursday denied hoarding rice at his family?s house in Quezon City. ?I?m just a small rice retailer,? he told Aksyon Radyo in Dagupan City.
?Only seven old empty sacks of NFA were there,? Primicias said.
As an NFA-accredited rice retailer, Primicias said he had a 25-sack weekly allocation from the NFA and as a result, empty NFA rice sacks would often accumulate in his store.
?Sometimes, people would ask for extra sacks. I sometimes bring extra sacks to my house while some are mixed with other empty sacks,? he said.
He said 80 sacks of commercial rice were in his basement during the police visit.
Mariza Chua vehemently denied illegally repacking NFA rice with commercial grains during the inspection.
Mabanag said Chua had claimed that her family was licensed rice dealers and that the empty NFA sacks, which the policemen found, were left by retailers who bought commercial rice varieties from the warehouse.
The businesswoman also claimed that the rice stocks were obtained locally. Chua, however, could not explain how her family was able to obtain the imported rice varieties, Mabanag said.
King explained that the rice shipment arrived during the Holy Week but he could not sell the shipment because the Bureau of Customs refused to release the rice supply pending the verification of the documents.
Although he had paid the customs duties and taxes, King explained that Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service head Rico Rey Holganza refused to release the shipment because it still needed to conduct physical examination of all the sacks.
Because of this, King said he decided to store the rice shipment at the warehouse of Martinez while the customs officials conduct an examination.
He noted that customs personnel were even guarding the warehouse when the NFA-NBI team raided it.
King said the representative of the farmers? organization would be coming to Cebu to dispel doubts that the farmers? cooperative was nonexistent. With reports from Gabriel Cardinoza, Inquirer Northern Luzon and Agence France-Presse