The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday, Oct. 12, directed the Senate to answer the petition filed Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation executive Linconn Uy Ong who pleaded to declare unconstitutional his arrest and detention ordered by the Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee.
Ong pleaded the SC to order his immediate release from the Senate’s building in Pasay City where he has been detained on orders issued by the Senate committee which has been conducting an inquiry into the multi-billion peso contract with the government for the purchases of COVID-19 medical supplies.
SC Spokesperson Brian Keith H. Hosaka confirmed the SC’s directive. “As per Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo, the respondents in the petition filed by Linconn Ong were required by the Court to file their comment to the main petition and prayer for TRO (temporary restraining order).”
On the number of days to file comment, Hosaka said: “the Chief Justice did not elaborate but the usual period is 10 days” from receipt of the resolution.
Named respondents in Ong’s petition were the Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee and its Chairman, Sen. Richard J. Gordon; Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III; and retired MGen. Rene C. Samonte, Senate sergeant-at-arms.
A member of Pharmally’s board of directors and supply chain manager, Ong told the SC the contempt citation against him has no constitutional basis and violated his right to due process.
He also said the punishment imposed on him is considered an encroachment on the power of the judiciary.
Through his lawyers led by Ferdinand S. Topacio, Ong asked the SC to declare null and void for being unconstitutional the implementation of Section 18 of the Senate Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation under Senate Resolution No. 5 as amended by Senate Resolution No. 145 that punishes for contempt the act of testifying “falsely or evasively.”
He also pleaded the SC to declare unconstitutional Section 6, Article 6 of the Rules of the Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigation, also known as the Blue Ribbon Committee, insofar as it punishes as contempt the act of testifying “falsely or evasively.”
He said: “For a finding of guilt and the consequent imposition of a punishment for false testimony, the same being a crime defined by law, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The person charged thereof is entitled to all the rights of the accused in a criminal prosecution as provided by the Constitution, including the presumption of innocence and the right to notice and hearing, among others.”
“No tribunal except the proper courts may exercise jurisdiction, hence, try and decide the guilt or innocence of the accused under strict compliance with the Rules of Criminal Procedure and Evidence. Congress absolutely has no business in the determination of such guilt or innocence much less in the imposition of punishment,” he added.
He pointed out that under Section 21, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution, where the power of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation emanates, mandates “the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”
“Thus, as provided therein, the investigation must be ‘in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure’ and that ‘the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected, including the right to due process and the right not to be compelled to testify against one’s self’,” he said in his petition.
At the same time, Ong said the rules of the rules of the Blue Ribbon Committee which became the basis for contempt citation against him and his subsequent arrest and detention should be struck down for being vague.
He stressed that the rules failed to specify the standards as to what constitutes “testifying falsely or evasively.”
“Here, ‘testifies falsely or evasively,’ the phrase that purports to describe a punishable act, is utterly vague as it does not fairly notify the witness of how it can be committed nor does it restrict in any manner the discretion of the Senate Committee to adjudge an act as falling within its ambit. This should not pass the constitutional muster,” he said.
On the encroachment on the power of the judiciary when he was punished with detention, Ong said: “To allow Congress to punish persons for such crime is to allow not only a grave violation of the right to due process, but at the same time, an encroachment of the power and jurisdiction of the courts to hear, decide and punish criminal actions.”