MANILA, Philippines - The courts should act faster on cases filed against smugglers to complement the intensified campaign by the administration against rice smuggling, Malacanang said Tuesday.
“Government hopes that with the filing by the Bureau of Customs of at least 157 cases of alleged smuggling since 2010, the prosecution, litigation and eventual resolution of such cases will progress at a faster rate,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a press briefing yesterday. “In this way, violators of the law will be deterred and justice will be rendered.”
So far, none of the 157 cases has ended in a conviction. The Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) hears the tax and smuggling cases while prosecution is handled by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The CTA has three justices in one division and is considered a special court separate from municipal and regional trial courts.
Malacañang’s call for greater cooperation with the courts and legislature came amid reports of massive rice smuggling in the country.
“Clearly, the implementation of systemic reforms to curb smuggling requires closer coordination and teamwork among all concerned government agencies,” Coloma said.
He said the filing of the cases was part of the Run After Tax Evaders and Smugglers program – with an average of one case filed per week.
“Following President Aquino’s directive, the Bureau of Customs led by Commissioner (John Philip) Sevilla has taken steps to promote transparency and openness, simplified transactions and adopted a systemic approach to plug loopholes and minimize opportunities for graft and corruption,” Coloma said.
Specific reform measures, Coloma said, include centralized single reference for valuation information, implementation of a single dispute resolution process for valuation, digitization of every single formal transaction, review of the monitoring of Customs bonded warehouses, revamp of the importer accreditation process and intensified monitoring of sensitive imports.
The Palace has been saying that certainty of arrest, prosecution and punishment would serve as deterrent to smugglers. But the judiciary and the legislature are separate branches of government.
Coloma said this is the reason why the criminal justice system is part of the systemic reforms being pushed by the administration.
Asked about the feasibility of assigning smuggling cases to special courts to speed up prosecution, Coloma said it’s only the Supreme Court which could make a decision on the matter.
On the need to amend the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines, Coloma said it would be up to Congress to act on the matter even if the executive is already studying needed changes.
On the part of the executive, Coloma said the management of the BOC had been overhauled and an automation system is being readied to minimize human intervention and eventually subvert graft and corruption.
Coloma said they had been doing their best to solve the smuggling problem but acknowledged the need for more administrative measures.
He said that in the recent Senate hearing on rice smuggling, much had been raised regarding quantitative restrictions and tariff amendments.
“I agree with the comments that to make (reforms) more effective and more permanent, there is really a need to amend the law,” Coloma said, referring to the Tariff and Customs Code.
He said the law came into being before the era of free trade or the World Trade Organization.
“We are now with the WTO and there are still no proposals for important reforms,” Coloma said.
“We have to adjust to the demands of the global economy to make our livelihood more competitive, especially now that we are entering the ASEAN economic integration,” Coloma said, adding that tariffs on numerous products had gone down.
The target is zero tariff.
Under a zero-tariff regime, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the BOC should be more effective in collecting administrative fees so as not to deprive the country of much-needed revenues, he said.
For some BOC officials, the brickbats the bureau had to parry for its reported failure to stamp out smuggling in the country should be taken as a challenge.
BOC Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement Group (EG) Ariel Nepomuceno said the criticism and even threats that they had been receiving had prompted them to dig deeper into the problem and look for solutions.
Nepomuceno said even Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s threatening words during last Monday’s Senate hearing on rice smuggling “must be taken as a positive challenge for the BOC to look inwards.” Duterte, during the hearing, reiterated his wish to kill rice smugglers.
Nepomuceno, who only joined the BOC late last year, said Duterte’s display of outrage was his way of venting his frustrations.
“We understand Mayor Duterte’s frustration with the bureau. Thus, we must continue with the current reform agenda so that we can save the public and deliver on the President’s expectations,” he said.
BOC Deputy Commissioner for Assessment and Operations Coordination Group (AOCG) Agaton Teodoro Uvero, for his part, expressed belief that their effort made a dent on the illegal importation business as shown by the increase in their revenue collection.
“As far as Customs is concerned under the new team, we have seen a drastic reduction in incidents of smuggling as evidenced by increasing collections in just the last three months,” Uvero said.
Since the middle of last year, the BOC has been implementing reforms, which also involve transferring several ranking officials to the Customs Policy Research Office (CPRO).
The resignation of former commissioner Rufino Biazon after he was implicated in the pork barrel scam had triggered an overhaul in the bureau.
To ensure greater transparency, the BOC under Sevilla’s leadership now posts on its website significant details on all importations such as the names of consignees.
Assigning of BOC personnel to man x-ray machines would be done on a daily rotational basis. In addition, key officials like district collectors would be given access to online viewing of contents of every shipment. With Evelyn Macairan