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Editorial

Swift justice

/ 04:12 AM August 25, 2011

American President Bill Clinton once said, “If we want to keep crime coming down, we need to instill trust in our criminal justice system.” Unfortunately, to the dismay of law-abiding citizens and to the delight of wrongdoers, trust is not exactly what our criminal justice system inspires. Criminal cases—even the most sensational ones—drag on for years such that by the time a final decision is rendered, the punishment meted out, if any, no longer has its intended impact on society as a whole.

Penal justice is not solely meant to chastise the guilty, it is meant as well to protect both accusers and society from criminal vengeance and recidivism, as well as to discourage potential criminals. If not delivered swiftly, it loses its sting.

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Which was what happened with the case against Zafiro Respicio. He was charged with graft and falsification of documents in connection with the escape from the country of 11 Indians who were under investigation for drug trafficking. The year was 1994 and he was then immigration chief. Last July—or 17 long years later—the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction by the Sandiganbayan. A rare catch of a big fish that has long been forgotten by the public. Imagine the impact it would have created if he had been convicted within a period of one or two years.

Another case of justice delayed revolved around the tax credit scams, which cost the government a total of P5.3 billion in losses over six years, from 1992 to 1998. The special presidential task force that investigated the anomalous transactions took until December 2001 to file plunder charges. It was only in March 2009—more than eight years later—that the Office of the Ombudsman finally brought the case for trial before the Sandiganbayan. The case (against Faustino Chingkoe and his wife Gloria who allegedly pocketed P2.5 billion or nearly half of the loot; Pacifico Cruz of Shell; Celso Legarda of Petron; former Finance undersecretary Antonio Belicena, among others) was dismissed in March this year. When it was exposed, this scandal dominated the front pages. But when the final verdict was handed down, the news merited little public interest.

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The Maguindanao massacre seems to be treading the same path as the Respicio and Chingkoe cases. Nearing its two-year mark on Nov. 23, it has hardly moved forward, inching uncertainly and ever slowly with no end in sight. In the meantime, the nation’s interest in the case may be starting to wane.

Since the new administration took office, the Bureau of Customs and Bureau of Internal Revenue have been filing smuggling and tax evasion cases one after another, with a degree of aggressiveness never before seen. Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez a few days ago revealed that more than P50 billion is expected to be collected from all the cases filed against smugglers so far. And just last week, the BIR slapped a manufacturer with a P1.7-billion tax evasion case. It has vowed to continue filing new cases every week.

But how long it will take to bring these cases and the coming ones to final judgment remains a big question. Swift justice is as elusive as an eel in this country, where crooked lawyers manipulate the justice system in the name of due process, to keep the unscrupulous rich, the corrupt bureaucrats and the ruthless politicians beyond the pale of the law. This has made our justice system a cause of so much frustration and injustice for most litigants, besides emboldening criminals and abetting criminal tendencies.

True, bringing a case to a speedy and just resolution has always been a complex process. But there are ways to do it, as shown time and again in the swift resolution of high-profile cases in the United States.

But first, there must be a sincere, steely resolve on the part of all those involved in any part of the process—law enforcement, investigation, prosecution, trial and punishment—to truly serve the ends of justice. Which brings us to the second need: closer cooperation and coordination between and among government agencies to ensure that air-tight cases are filed and smooth and fair trials are conducted. Thirdly, given our clogged court dockets, a system should be found to prioritize the resolution of cases according to their significance—that is, in terms of their impact on and implications to society as a whole.

If our justice system is to win back our people’s trust and fulfill its mission not only of punishing sinners but protecting society, all its elements will have to work more quickly and efficiently.

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Celso Legarda of Petron; former Finance undersecretary Antonio Belicena, criminal cases, Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez, drug trafficking, Faustino Chingkoe, Gloria Chingkoe, Indian nationals, Justice System, maguindanao massacre, Office of the Ombudsman, Pacifico Cruz of Shell, penal justice, Sandiganbayan, Smuggling, tax credit scams, tax evasion cases, Zafiro Respicio
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