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Cancellation of passports — is it warranted?

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s request for the DFA to cancel the passports of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, plus 35 other individuals facing plunder complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the P10-billion pork barrel fund scam, has sparked an energetic debate over social media and legal circles. The 1996 Passport Act allows the cancellation of a passport when an individual poses a threat to public safety, public health and national security — with De Lima arguing that graft and corruption is considered a national security concern.

De Lima had described Enrile, et. al. as “flight risks” who have the means and the resources to leave the country, citing the other individuals implicated in the pork fund scam who have already left the country even before cases were filed before the Ombudsman. She also floated the possibility that the respondents would all be gone by the time the Ombudsman finishes its preliminary investigation and files the cases before the Sandiganbayan — which would leave her Department with no one left to prosecute.

People certainly understand where the DOJ secretary is coming from and in fact, some are fully supportive of her move — recalling the examples of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes (who was charged with the murder of environmentalist Gerry Ortega) and former Senator Ping Lacson (who was tagged in the murder of PR man Bubby Dacer and driver Manuel Corbito) who were both able to leave the country to evade arrest. But that’s just where the big difference lies — because unlike Lacson and Reyes who were already charged in court and were in fact facing warrants of arrest — Enrile and the others have yet to be charged, with the Ombudsman still in the process of conducting an initial investigation. And not to forget — the Court of Appeals later cleared Lacson in the Dacer/Corbito murders and just very recently, the CA also upheld an earlier ruling that cleared Reyes of murder charges over the Ortega case.

Legal experts say De Lima’s move is totally out of line, since the senators, et. al. have not been formally charged by the Sandiganbayan. The DOJ chief however, cited the 2006 UN Convention Against Corruption (to which the Philippines is a signatory) that regards corruption as a threat to social stability and security, theorizing that the billions lost to corruption can “jeopardize” government efforts to revitalize the economy through grassroots projects — which in turn would undermine the nation’s economic security because it can drive the poor to feel anger and resentment towards government, which could plant the seeds of all kinds of civil and political unrest — or words to that effect. De Lima envisions such far-reaching consequences that she is mulling the cancellation of the passports of more people implicated in the P900-million Malampaya fund plunder.

As expected, lawyers of the accused have called the cancellation request “ridiculous” because it makes a mockery of the law. Human rights advocates say the move is tantamount to martial law, angry that the powers-that-be can just unilaterally restrict freedom of movement or travel on suspicion alone and without legal basis. But many who are disgusted by those implicated in the pork fund scandal are praising De Lima for her courage and fortitude in acting quickly. On the other hand, some are saying the DOJ Secretary deliberately issues controversial statements to get publicity so reporters will keep going back to her.

Movie buffs are thoroughly convinced that De Lima is a big fan of “Minority Report” – that sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise where a “pre-crime” department of police composed of “pre-cog” psychics can foretell the occurrence of a crime even before it happens. The pre-crime department allows law enforcement authorities to apprehend “would be” criminals and incarcerate them to prevent the “future crime” from being committed.

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As a matter of fact, there are reports that a group of US-based researchers are working on a similar “Minority Report” premise and are trying to develop a surveillance camera system that can do “activity forecasting” — which can supposedly help predict what people will most likely do in the future. Researchers believe they can develop a camera system utilizing the concept of artificial intelligence that can help authorities detect “anomalous behavior’ and enable them to “see” or predict crimes before they actually happen.

The bottom line according to a legal expert is that the courts — and only the courts — should be the only institution that should have the power to issue travel hold orders and passport cancellations, the venue where both sides can argue their case. But many can still remember the situation involving former president Gloria Arroyo where a watch list order (WLO) prevented her from leaving the country for treatment due to electoral sabotage raps. If our memory serves us right, Senate President Frank Drilon even questioned the authority of DOJ Secretary De Lima to issue a WLO during that time, saying it was in effect a hold departure order that violates the constitutional rights of an individual citizen as it encroaches on one’s right to travel.

Obviously, the passport cancellation request is one that could — if it has not already — become a contentious legal issue that must be carefully deliberated on to fairly balance the interest of national security without infringing on an individual’s rights as prescribed by the Constitution. During Martial Law, many human rights lawyers were violently against the issuance of travel bans that were issued then by no less than the Minister of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile. It is so ironic that Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is now on the receiving end.

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Email: babeseyeview@yahoo.com

 

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