By Paolo Romero, September 4 2019; Philippine Star

Image Credit to Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Justice (DOJ) will stop deportation proceedings for the five convicted Chinese drug traffickers who were earlier freed on account of good behavior, and return them to prison after it was found that their release violated the law.

The decision to return the convicts came after Sen. Francis Tolentino stated during the inquiry yesterday of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee that their release violated the Omnibus Election Code and Resolution 10429 of the Commission on Elections.

Tolentino questioned the validity of the release of suspected Chinese drug lord Chen Tzi Chang, freed on April 8 this year. Similarly, Chinese drug lords Chan Chit Yue, Kin San Ho, Ching Che and Wu Hing Sum were released and transferred to the Bureau of Immigration (BI) on the first week of June 2019.

The resolution issued in September 2018 set March 14 to June 12, 2019 as a period when the release and/or transfer of prisoners are prohibited.

“We all know that those dates fall during the campaign and election period. Are you aware, is anybody aware, coming from the side of BuCor, that we have Section 261 in the Omnibus Election Code entitled ‘Illegal release of prisoners’?” he asked Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Nicanor Faeldon, who replied in the negative.

The senator asked Faeldon to furnish the Senate a copy of the list of prisoners released during the election ban.

“While the law provides that it (Good Conduct Time Allowance or GCTA) cannot be revoked, and I think, when the release was granted, it was in clear violation, willful violation of existing laws especially election code. Therefore, it is void,” he said in mixed Filipino and English.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra agreed, saying the release of prisoners under the GCTA could be considered illegal if it was done during the election ban.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon, is conducting an inquiry into the implementation of Republic Act 10592, or the GCTA law, which allows for the reduction of a convict’s sentence based on a formula tallying good behavior.

The law, enacted in 2013 and implemented retroactively, specifically disqualifies those charged with heinous crimes but it is vague on whether or not those already convicted are allowed to avail themselves of GCTA benefits.

Since it was enacted, BuCor interpreted the GCTA as also covering those convicted for heinous crimes, such that some 1,914 inmates have been released since 2014.

However, since the controversy over the aborted release of rapist-murderer and former Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez, and the freeing of drug lords and other high-profile convicts, the DOJ invalidated the BuCor interpretation.

Senators have been pushing to have those freed rounded up and brought back to prison given the DOJ’s new interpretation of the law, but Guevarra warned on Monday that such would be easier said than done given the very complicated constitutional issues that will arise from such a move.

Tolentino’s manifestation, however, could give impetus to such calls to recall the releases, at least for those discharged during the election ban.

Following Guevarra’s concurrence, Sen. Panfilo Lacson inquired about the whereabouts of the five Chinese drug convicts and it was found out that four are still confined at the BI center in Manila while one is still in the regional office in Davao.

Immigration chief Jaime Morente wants Chen, now detained in Davao City, transferred to the BI’s detention center in Bicutan, following his controversial release from the Davao Penal Colony last April.

Morente said efforts are being made for the transfer of Chen to the Bicutan facility.

During yesterday’s Senate hearing on the GCTA law, Lacson identified Chen as one of the Chinese drug lords released from prison last April.

No GCTA benefits to criminals convicted of heinous crimes

Yesterday, Sen. Bong Go filed Senate Bill 1003 to clearly state the intent and policy of the law not to extend benefits of the GCTA to prisoners convicted of heinous crimes.

“In this bill, I added a provision that will very clearly state that persons who have been convicted of heinous crimes will not be eligible to be granted time allowances,” he said.

The senator added that, as a guide, he included a provision that lists which heinous crimes are covered. And to eliminate corruption, Go added a provision stating that any release of prisoners on the basis of time allowances shall be “subject to review.”

Congress should know the status of the releases, as the BuCor will be required to furnish the legislature with a report twice a year, Go’s bill states.

“All of these will form part of our continuing fight against corruption and criminality, and illegal drugs,” he said.

Also yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon reiterated that the DOJ has legal basis to seek the re-arrest of thousands of heinous crime convicts wrongly released by BuCor, which include three involved in the rape-slay of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in Cebu in 1997.

Corrections chief Faeldon disclosed in a Senate hearing last Monday that rape-slay convicts Josman Aznar, Ariel Balansag and Alberto Caño walked free in August due to good behavior.

Thelma Chiong, the mother of the victims, has described the release as an “injustice” and has urged President Duterte to overturn the release of the convicts.

However, Malacañang yesterday blamed the previous administration for what it described as the “messy” implementation of the GCTA law.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said it would be unfair to blame Duterte for the release of heinous crime inmates, noting that the GCTA law’s implementing rules were crafted in 2014, two years before the President assumed office. He said Mrs. Chiong appeared to question the integrity of Duterte when she asked the President what happened to the GCTA law.

“Cleary, the law and its IRR were prepared not by the officials of this administration but by the previous one,” Panelo said.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said bringing back the convicts to jail is the proper thing to do as they are reviewing the GCTA law for possible loopholes, adding that convicted killers like Sanchez should remain in jail as they are a danger to society.

Año stressed the need  for the process of recomputation of prisoners’ good conduct credit to remain suspended while government reviews the implementing rules and regulations, noting “grey areas” within the law.

The secretary said a warrant of arrest is unnecessary, as the convicts can be considered fugitives if their release papers are cancelled. He added those that will be affected are free to dispute it in court. – Edith Regalado, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Emmanuel Tupas, Alexis Romero