SC urged to affirm BOC power on seizure of smuggled goods

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

MANILA -- Senators urged Wednesday the Supreme Court (SC) to immediately issue a definitive legal position on the issuance of writ of preliminary injunction by lower courts favoring alleged rice smugglers.

Senator Cynthia Villar, Senate committee on agriculture chairperson, said that it's about time that the SC remind the lower courts the boundary that they need to observe specifically for smuggling cases.

In a radio interview, Villar said that it was disappointing to note that this order from the court is helping those who are violating the law.

The Bureau of Customs (BOC) had earlier said that it would release the seized rice shipments due to writ injunction issued by local courts, specifically in Davao, Batangas and Manila.

Villar said the local courts should be reminded of Administrative Circular (AC) 07-99 dated June 25, 1999 issued by then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. to all judges of the lower courts, where the BOC's exclusive jurisdiction over seizure and forfeiture of goods was clearly stated. The circular said lower courts cannot interfere in such cases.

"So whatever court ruling they have favoring these people who are being linked to smuggling doesn't stand at all," Villar said.

The administrative circular reminds judges to "exercise of utmost caution, prudence and judiciousness in issuance of temporary restraining orders and writ of preliminary injunctions."

"Judges are thus enjoined to observed utmost caution, prudence and judiciousness in the issuance of TRO and in the grant of writs of preliminary injunction to avoid any suspicion that its issuance or grant was for considerations other than the strict merits of the case," the circular stated.

Earlier, at least three courts issued a writ of preliminary injunction to the National Food Authority (NFA) following seizure of smuggled rice.

The lower court judges who issued the injunctions include: Batangas Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Eutiquio Quitain, Davao RTC branch 16 Judge Emmanuel Carpio and Manila Presiding Judge Maria Paz Reyes-Yson, who issued an injunction in favor of Starcraft International Trading, a firm allegedly owned by suspected rice smuggler David Bangayan.

The BOC traced its legal woes to a Davao court ruling, which said that since the special treatment the World Trade Organization gave the Philippines to restrict rice imports expired in June 2012 importers can bring in rice to the country even without a permit.

The ruling was adopted by courts in Manila and Batangas in ordering the release of suspected illegal rice shipments the BOC seized.

Villar said the Supreme Court under the present leadership should remind the lower courts not to interfere in cases like this and asked the BOC to stop releasing container vans containing the seized smuggled rice.

Releasing the goods will result in revenue losses on the part of the government and loss of livelihood on the part of some three million rice farmers, she added.

Bangayan, who is suspected to be the rice smuggler David Tan, denied his involvement in the rice smuggling operations in the country.

Starcraft lawyer Benito Salazar dismissed the allegations as a "vilification campaign" led by officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and NFA that "unfairly sullied the name of individuals and enterprises who just want to make an honest living."

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., for his part, asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to immediately issue a legal opinion on expired restrictions on rice importation under WTO being used by traders to smuggle rice even without an import permit from the DA.

Marcos said the DOJ should come out as soon as possible with a legal opinion not only on the issue of jurisdiction but also whether the Philippines can still impose rice importation quotas.

The DOJ earlier said the Office of the Solicitor General has already filed a motion for reconsideration of these questionable court order issued by the three courts.

At a Senate hearing last Monday, Customs Commissioner Philip Sevilla said that as much as 50,000 metric tons of rice monthly may have been smuggled into the country last year.

Marcos said that unless the government can put a serious dent on rice smuggling operations, perception will persist that rice smugglers are in cahoots with corrupt officials from the BOC and other concerned agencies such as the NFA. (Camille P. Balagtas/Sunnex)

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