Enrile et al. get 5 days to reply; DOJ move hit
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday gave three senators—Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada—and 35 other respondents in the P10-billion pork barrel scam case five days to comment on a justice department request to have their passports canceled.
Even as Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario prepared to consult with the DFA’s lawyers on the potentially legally contentious issue—the first time the DFA has had to handle a passport cancellation request covering such a large group of people—Revilla yesterday denounced Justice Secretary Leila de Lima for violating his human rights and that of his corespondents in seeking to impose restrictions on their freedom to travel.
“This early we are being treated as worse than convicts when no charges have been filed against us. How can we expect due process when this early they want to punish us?” Revilla said.
He said that in labeling the respondents in the plunder complaint in connection with the pork barrel scam as “threats to national security,” De Lima was exposing her bias and “[pursuing] her own agenda.”
“Because of her lust for publicity, overweening ambition and desire to boast and project herself, [De Lima] has disrespected the law,” Revilla said.
Invoking national security
De Lima on Thursday asked the DFA to cancel the passports of the three senators and 35 others facing plunder complaints in the Office of the Ombudsman over the P10-billion pork barrel scam, saying there was sufficient basis in law and in fact to do so.
She argued that the government viewed graft and corruption as a national security issue and that under the passport law, the foreign secretary could refuse to issue, limit the use of or cancel a passport “in the interest of national security.”
Estrada yesterday sounded unfazed by De Lima’s move.
“As long as there is no court order, I can leave the country. But if I leave the country, I will assure my country I will be coming back and will face all the charges. I was born here, raised here and I will die here,” he said in a phone interview.
“There’s no other country that I know and that I love except the Philippines,” the senator said.
But Estrada, who has a scheduled overseas trip in the next few weeks, said he would defer to the DFA’s decision on the issue.
Repeated calls to Enrile, the third senator in the passport cancellation request list, went unanswered on Friday.
One case, one issue
DFA spokesperson Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez yesterday confirmed the DFA’s receipt of De Lima’s request and told a press briefing that the department had begun sending out notices to the individuals listed on Friday, asking them to submit written comments on the government’s bid to void their travel documents.
“From receipt of notices, they have five days to reply, including nonworking days. We will then evaluate the merits of the DOJ request and the comments of the passport holders before we come up with a decision,” he told reporters.
Depending on the date of their receipt of the DFA notice, the respondents are expected to file their comments by next week.
Hernandez said Del Rosario and a legal team would be deciding on the DOJ request. He said the DFA would “treat this as one case or one issue,” issuing a single decision, even if some fail to comment.
“If concerned parties fail to submit comments, the decision will have to be based on the merits of the request of the DOJ and our interpretation,” he said.
“We will treat this as one case or one issue. The arguments of one party will apply to the others,” he said.
The procedure, said Hernandez, is based on the DFA’s reading of the 1996 Philippine Passport Act, which prescribes conditions under which the state has the power to cancel an individual’s passport.
Under the passport law, the DFA may only cancel passports of fugitives, convicted criminals and those proven to have fraudulently acquired or tampered with the travel document.
But the foreign secretary is allowed to use his discretion to cancel a travel document in cases involving national security, public safety and health.
Santiago supports cancellation
The justice department’s move got unexpected support yesterday from Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the Senate’s acknowledged constitutional and international law expert.
Santiago said the Philippines was obliged to cancel the passports of the three senators facing a plunder complaint under the 2005 UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
The local law, in this case the passport law, should not pose a problem to the cancellation of the passports under the UN conventions, Santiago said.
While the UNCAC and Vienna Convention appear to be in conflict with the passport law, they are part of the law of the land under the Constitution, Santiago pointed out.
The UNCAC, which came into effect in 2005, also supersedes the 1996 passport law, she said.
“In the interest of national security, the state is not immobilized by its own domestic law to allow persons of interest to morph into fugitives from justice before taking what could be a futile action,” she said.
The early cancellation of a passport by the government would be an “act of preemptive self-defense,” Santiago said.
“You don’t wait for a shot to be fired before you press the trigger,” she said.
Santiago said that under the treaty law, the Philippines is committed to implement the UNCAC in good faith, specifically its treaty provision identifying corruption as a threat to national security.
Under the UNCAC, party-states are obliged to maximize the effectiveness of law enforcement measures relating to corruption, she said.
“The plunder cases undergoing preliminary investigation involve vast quantities of assets, including P10 billion,” she said.
‘Why the rush?’
Meanwhile, an opposition leader in the House of Representatives has questioned De Lima’s “undue haste” in imposing harsh travel restrictions on the three senators when the Ombudsman has yet to file charges against them in the Sandiganbayan.
“I think it is premature for the secretary to seek the cancellation of their passports. Why the rush? This is prosecution by press release,” said Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez.
Romualdez noted that Revilla and Estrada have a “reputation” to protect since they are being eyed to run for higher office in 2016 and they would not risk angering the public by fleeing. He also noted that Enrile was 90 years old and too old to escape.
Romualdez, the president of the opposition Lakas party, which Revilla chairs, said the executive department has succeeded in focusing the spotlight on lawmakers in the pork barrel scam, as if the top government officials and the bureaucracy had nothing to do with it.
“It came from the top,” said Romualdez, who proposed that Congress retake the initiative in the pork barrel scam and investigate the executive officials who have facilitated these illicit transactions.
Meanwhile, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte on Friday said President Aquino was notified of the DOJ’s move to seek the passports’ cancellation.
“The President is aware of it, yes. Secretary de Lima informed the President,” she said. With reports from Gil Cabacungan and Michael Lim Ubac
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