SC: Senate can’t indefinitely detain persons held in contempt
The Senate has no power to detain indefinitely a person held in contempt during an inquiry in aid of legislation, according to the Supreme Court.
In a 21-page decision made public Tuesday, the high court, through Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo, said that the period of imprisonment under the Senate’s inherent power to hold someone in contempt should only lasts until the termination of the legislative inquiry.
The ruling was in response to a petition filed by Arvin Balag, leader of the Aegis Juris fraternity, which is based at the University of Santo Tomas (UST).
Balag was detained at the Senate on Oct. 18, 2017 after being cited for contempt for refusing to answer questions regarding his leadership and membership in the UST-based fraternity, during the probe into the death of freshman law student Horacio “Atio” Castillo III.
Balag filed before the Supreme Court a petition for a temporary restraining order on his continued detention and an eventual order for his release.
He argued that the contempt order violated the constitutional right of persons appearing in legislative probes, as well as the right to a fair trial, and that the investigation was not in aid of legislation but “in aid of prosecution.”
Balag added that there were other resource persons who also refused to respond to questions during the probe, but he was the only held in contempt.
The SC ordered Balag’s “interim release” in December 2017.
While it declared Balag’s petition questioning the legality of his detention by the Senate moot and academic, the court noted that the petition “presents a critical and decisive issue” that must be resolved, which is the duration of the detention for contempt ordered by the Senate.
“This issue must be threshed out as the Senates exercise of its power of contempt without a definite period is capable of repetition,” the high court said.
“Moreover, the indefinite detention of persons cited in contempt impairs their constitutional right to liberty,” the court added. “Thus, paramount public interest requires the Court to determine such issue to ensure that the constitutional rights of the persons appearing before a legislative inquiry of the Senate are protected.”
In issuing its ruling, the high court said it had to “strike a balance” between the interest of the Senate and the rights of persons held in contempt during legislative inquiries.
“Accordingly, as long as there is a legitimate legislative inquiry, then the inherent power of contempt by the Senate may be properly exercised,” the court said. “Conversely, once the said legislative inquiry concludes, the exercise of the inherent power of contempt ceases and there is no more genuine necessity to penalize the detained witness.”
But the high court clarified that the length or the period of detention would up to Congress to determine.
“Of course, the enactment of a new law or the amendment of the existing law to augment its power of contempt and to extend the period of imprisonment shall be in the sole discretion of Congress,” the court said.
But the court reminded the legislature that if it would wish to extend the period of imprisonment for the contempt committed by a witness beyond the duration of the legislative inquiry, “then it may file a criminal case under the existing statute or enact a new law to increase the definite period of imprisonment.”
Aside from Balag, other members of fraternity are currently detained at the Manila City Jail facing charges of violation of the Anti-Hazing Law (Republic Act No. 8049) and obstruction of justice before the Manila Regional Trial Court.
The jailed Aegis Juris members are Ralph Trangia, Oliver John Audrey Onofre, Mhin Wei Chan, Danielle Hans Matthew Rodrigo, Joshua Joriel Macabali, Axel Munro Hipe, Marelino Bagtang, Jose Miguel Salamat, and Robin Ramon.
Castillo died on Sept. 17, 2017, allegedly after undergoing initiation rites in the hands of Aegis Juris fraternity members. /atm
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