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Indefinite suspension of Immigration staff linked to 'pastillas' bribery sought

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Indefinite suspension of Immigration staff linked to 'pastillas' bribery sought
In this photo taken February 20, 2020, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chair of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, leads the probe into prostitution rings that cater to Philippine Offshore Gambling Operator workers and the "pastillas" racket at the Immigration bureau.
The STAR / Geremy Pintolo

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who led the nearly year-long inquiry into the “pastillas” scheme, is calling on the Department of Justice to suspend Bureau of Immigration officials tagged in the corruption racket indefinitely.

The BI officials, whom the Office of the Ombudsman put on a six-month preventive suspension, have returned to work, justice and immigration officials have confirmed. President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday told Congress and the Filipino people that he had fired the officials implicated in the "pastillas" scheme, where foreigners slipped into the country in exchange for money.

"The pastillas scam is not over," Hontiveros said in a statement. She said BI personnel tagged in the bribery scheme "should not be allowed to return to work without difficulty while there is no judgment on who should be held liable,” Hontiveros said partly in Filipino in a statement."

"I urge the DOJ to indefinitely suspend the officers who are alleged to be part of the crime. A [six-month] suspension is not enough," she added.

Hontiveros, chair of the Senate Committee on Women, Children and Family Relations, led the nearly year-long legislative inquiry into the “pastillas” scheme at BI.

Following the Senate probe, the National Bureau of Investigation lodged at least two batches of complaints against dozens of BI personnel. The Ombudsman, in December 2020, slapped more than 80 officials with a six-month preventive suspension.

Months later, the BI officers are back in the main office pending results of investigations into their alleged involvement in the scheme, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra confirmed Wednesday.

Senate hearings into the "pastillas scheme" have also found possible links with syndicates trafficking Filipino women to Syria

'Six-month suspension not enough'

But Hontiveros urged the DOJ to implement an indefinite suspension on the BI officers tagged in the scheme. She raised: "How about the women and children victimized and continued to be victimized because of corrupt personnel at the BI?"

"A six-month suspension is not equivalent of the abuse of our women and the lifelong trauma they will face. The lives and dignity of our women and children are worth more than that," she added.

The Ombudsman's suspension order was meant to keep respondents from interfering with the investigation and was not a penalty. 

The "pastillas" scheme was uncovered as the Senate, in January 2020, started to look into the existence of prostitution rings in the country where foreigners, particularly, Chinese nationals working in Philippine Offshore Gambling Operators, were the main clientele.

DOJ can fire them

Guevarra, in a separate message to reporters, explained that under the rules of the Civil Service Commission, dismissal from service may be meted out upon finding of reasonable ground for dishonesty and other major administrative offense.

“Both the [Office of the Ombudsman] and the DOJ may exercise that disciplinary power after giving the respondents their day in court personnel who are on job-order basis only may be terminated immediately,” he added.

The Ombudsman is looking into the criminal complaints filed by the NBI in late 2020, while the DOJ is conducting administrative proceedings against the BI officers.

"Because it's the DOJ who appoints immigration officers under the Commonwealth Act that established the immigration agency. We have disciplined so many immigration officers in the past for administrative offenses," Guevarra also added.

Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said 84 of the 86 who were suspended returned to "administrative offices with back-end and non-sensitive positions, pending resolution of the cases filed against them." 

One has since retired while another was the whistleblower in the case.

BUREAU OF IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE PASTILLAS SCHEME RISA HONTIVEROS
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