MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) recognizes limits in its powers to act on a bid of multisectoral groups for higher penalties and criminal prosecution of US Navy officers and crew of the USS Guardian, which ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last January.
A member of the high court revealed to The STAR yesterday that there was a discussion on the issue of jurisdiction of the SC over respondents Scott Swift, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, and Mark Rice, commanding officer of the Guardian, when the justices decided to seek comments from the US government.
The insider, who refused to be named because the case is still pending, said this was the reason why the high court opted to send the respondents through the US embassy a letter instead of an order.
“The rule provides that the court issues an order to file comment on a petition to respondents that are covered by the court’s jurisdiction. In that case, filing an answer is mandatory,” the source said in explaining the difference.
Another member of the court earlier confirmed to The STAR the letter had been sent to the US embassy in Manila.
The source said the US government’s response would serve as “a test case if the US will even pay attention to it or invoke international treaties or laws.”
Apart from the US embassy, the SC also sought comments from Malacañang, Cabinet members and officials of the military to the petition for writ of Kalikasan filed by two Catholic bishops, environmentalists, activists and lawyers.
But for UP law professor Harry Roque Jr., the bid of the groups for criminal prosecution of respondents from the US Navy may be futile.
He also agreed with the opinion of the SC insider that the high court has no jurisdiction over the US Navy respondents.
“They will only say they have absolute immunity and that’s the end of it,” Roque told The STAR.
He said that the US military troops have “absolute immunity from local jurisdiction under customary public international laws.”
“This immunity can be waived though,” he said.
The petitioners include Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr., Bishop-Emeritus of Caloocan; Frances Quimpo and Clemente Bautista Jr. of Kalikasan-Pne; Maria Carolina Araullo and Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan); Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares; Roland Simbulan of Junk VFA Movement; Teresita Perez; Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino; Peter Gonzales of Pamalakaya; Giovanni Tapang, Agham; Elmer Labog, Kilusang Mayo Uno; Joan May Salvador, Gabriela; Jose Enrique Africa; Theresa Concepcion; Mary Joan Guan; Nestor Baguinon, and public interest lawyer Edsel Tupaz.
Petitioners are seeking a fine for the US that is 12 times the initial estimate of the Philippine government.
The groups also asked the SC to assess the damage caused to the reef by the grounding of the Guardian.
Apart from the issuance of the writ and temporary environmental protection order (TEPO), they also sought a determination of the fine to be imposed on the US Navy and the prosecution of the officers of the Guardian.
Petitioners are also asking the SC to order a stop to US war games and port calls by US ships in the absence of clear guidelines on environmental protection under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
For their part, petitioners led by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said they welcome the SC letter to the US Navy respondents.
“We await their comments regarding the Tubbataha case involving the USS Guardian and the US 7th Fleet. It is our hope that the petition will eventually be given due course and resolved in favor of the Filipino people,” said Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes.
“These activities pose a continuing threat to the environment and constitute an assault to our sovereignty,” Reyes said.
PAWB monitoring developments
The Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) yesterday said it will continue to monitor developments on Tubbataha Reef.
PAWB Director Theresa Mundita Lim expressed optimism that the USS Guardian and concerned officials will cooperate as promised.
She said that they appreciate what environmental groups are doing, especially since their actions are aimed at saving natural resources of global importance.
Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said they would want those responsible to pay the fines stipulated by the Tubbataha Management Office.
“We abide by the law, and we must ensure that they pay,” said Gregg Yan of WWF.
‘Heed SC order’
Parañaque City Rep. Roilo Golez said yesterday the US government must heed the letter of the SC asking for its answer to the petition for higher penalties and criminal prosecution of the officers and crew of the Guardian.
Golez, a former national security adviser and a graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, said all efforts must be exerted to put closure to the incident. – With Rhodina Villanueva, Paolo Romero