Drilon, Pimentel file bill to strengthen Sandiganbayan

NOTING the dismal disposition of graft cases at the Sandiganbayan, two senators on Wednesday filed a bill that would strengthen the current structure of the special appellate court, a move which is seen to decongest the clogged dockets of the country’s anti-graft court.

“The Sandiganbayan completes the proceedings of a case – from the filing of the information to promulgation of judgment – in about seven years. This sorry rate of disposition reflects the heavily clogged dockets of the court, given that the cases filed before it has multiplied over the years. Such a drawn-out process of litigation is injustice itself,” Senate President Franklin Drilon said in his sponsorship speech.

Drilon cited systemic limitations that slow down the anti-graft court from achieving its objectives swiftly.

Senate Bill 2138, known as “An Act Further Amending Presidential Decree No. 1606, as amended” seeks to introduce three innovations in the anti-graft court:

1) The bill seeks to introduce the concept of “Justice-Designate” that will allow one justice to hear receive evidence, and amend the quorum requirement from three justices in a division to two;

2) The bill seeks to transfer the jurisdiction over “minor cases” to the Regional Trial Courts; and

3) The bill seeks to modify the voting requirement for promulgation of judgment to allow the concurrence of at least two members of a division, instead of three, to render a decision.

The objective of this bill is to improve the disposition of cases in the Sandiganbayan, the country’s specialized court tasked to effectively and swiftly resolve corruption cases against erring government officials and employees, said Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, the bill’s co-author.

Under the bill, an individual member of a division is allowed to hear and receive evidence on behalf of the two other members of his or her division. Presently, the Sandiganbayan is composed of five divisions, with three justices each; and the presence of the three justices is required to receive evidence and try a case.

The bill also proposes the transfer of jurisdiction over cases that are classified as “minor” to the Regional Trial Courts. The measure qualifies “minor cases” as those where the information does not allege any damage or bribe; those that allege damage or bribe that are unquantifiable; or those that allege damage or bribe arising from the same or closely related transactions or acts not exceeding P1 million.

“If we are to outrun graft and corruption, it is imperative that we resuscitate and recondition our existing prosecutorial and adjudicatory institutions against this opponent,” said the Senate President.

“It is imperative for us to introduce and make the necessary revisions in the Court’s structure to ensure that justice is delivered, with haste and without delay,” added Pimentel.

Senate Bill 2138 seeks to modify the voting requirement for promulgation of judgment, by allowing at least the concurrence of two members to render a judgment. Under the Section 5 of the Sandiganbayan Law, the unanimous vote of all three members in a division is necessary for the rendition of final order. Failure to reach unanimity shall require the constitution of a special division of five members.

“The most potent deterrent against the spread of corruption is the certainty of punishment and expeditiousness of the proceedings, by boosting the structural capability of our anti-graft mechanisms,” said Drilon.

Drilon said that with these cutting edge proposals, the Senate is confident that the Sandiganbayan will be able to catch up with the pace of graft and corruption in public institution.

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World News Update: Voting ends in tense Thai election; political paralysis looms

BANGKOK – (UPDATED 4:10PM) Polling stations closed Sunday in Thailand, where protesters seeking to prevent the re-election of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra disrupted voting in parts of the country, officials said.

Voting finished by 3 pm (0800 GMT) as scheduled, according to the election commission, although hundreds of polling stations were unable to open at all or forced to shut early because of the demonstrators.

Thailand went to the polls under heavy security in an election that could push the divided country deeper into political turmoil and leave the winner paralyzed for months by street protests, legal challenges and legislative limbo.

Voting started peacefully a day after seven people were wounded by gunshots and explosions during a clash between supporters and opponents of embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a north Bangkok stronghold of her Puea Thai Party.

Voting was called off in the district and some other polling stations were unable to open because of pressure by anti-government protesters. Polling outside the capital and the south was unaffected.

“The situation overall is calm and we haven’t received any reports of violence this morning,” National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabutr told Reuters. “The protesters are rallying peacefully to show their opposition to this election.”

The usual campaign billboards, glossy posters, and pre-election buzz have been notably absent, as will be millions of voters fearful of violence or bent on rejecting a ballot bound to re-elect the political juggernaut controlled by Yingluck’s billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, 64, is loved and loathed in Thailand, but his parties have won every poll since 2001. His opponents say he is a corrupt crony capitalist who rules by proxy from self-exile in Dubai.

“We’re not blocking the election. We’re postponing it,” said Nipon Kaewsook, 42, one of the hundreds of protesters blocking Ratchathewi District Office in central Bangkok to prevent the distribution of dozens of ballot boxes.

“We still need an election, but we need reform first,” added Nipon, an English teacher from Phattalung in southern Thailand.

Protesters shouted “Yingluck get out!” and “Thaksin go to jail!” They took celebratory selfies in front of the ballot boxes, placed in a car park at the back of the building.

Victory celebrations for Yingluck would probably be muted. With parliamentary seats unable to be filled, she could find herself on shaky ground, exposed to legal attacks, and unable to pass bills and budgets crucial to reviving a stuttering economy.

Yingluck last week refused to postpone the election, even though a fifth of those registered for advance voting were unable to cast ballots after protesters blocked polling stations in 49 of 50 Bangkok districts as part of a “shutdown” of key intersections. In 28 southern constituencies, no votes will be cast because no candidates could sign up.

The Election Commission says results will not be available on Sunday. Its commissioners are braced for a deluge of complaints and challenges to the results.

“There’s been a lot of obstruction, so much, every single step of the way,” commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told Reuters.

“We don’t want this election to be a bloody election. We can get every single agency involved to make this election happen, but if there’s bloodshed, what’s the point?”

Intractable crisis

Anti-government demonstrators say Thaksin subverted Thailand’s fragile democracy by entrenching money politics and using taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies, cheap healthcare and easy loans that have bought him loyalty from millions of working-class Thai voters in the north and northeast.

With broad support from Bangkok’s middle class and tacit backing of the royalist establishment, old-money elite and military, the protesters reject the election and want to suspend democracy, replacing it with an appointed “people’s council” to reform politics and erode Thaksin’s influence.

The latest round of tumult in the eight-year political conflict erupted in November and underscored Thaksin’s central role in the intractable struggle, both as hero and villain.

Yingluck was largely tolerated by Thaksin’s opponents but her party miscalculated when it tried to introduce a blanket amnesty that would have nullified a graft conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return home.

Many Thais see history repeating itself after a cycle of elections, protests, and military or judicial interventions that have polarized the country and angered Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters, who held crippling blockades in 2010 and have vowed to defend his sister from any overthrow attempt.

Thailand’s military has remained neutral so far, but the judiciary has taken on an unusually large number of cases in the past two months in response to complaints against Yingluck and Puea Thai that could result in the party’s dissolution and lengthy bans for its top politicians.

There is also a chance the election could be annulled, as it was in 2006, over a technicality. The Election Commission is expecting lawsuits to be filed demanding the election be voided.

The main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the poll and the commission has already voiced concerns that it would result in too few legitimately elected MPs to form a parliamentary quorum.

With no quorum to re-elect a prime minister, it looks likely Yingluck could be a caretaker premier for months. Even with a fresh mandate, a stalemate is almost certain, giving her opponents more time to intensify their campaign against her and for legal challenges to be lodged.