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MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives passed on final reading a bill that seeks to slap heavier sanctions on individuals engaged in agricultural smuggling.
Its passage on Tuesday midnight, September 26, comes against the backdrop of a government that blames cartels and hoarders for the steep increases in the prices of key agricultural commodities, such as onions and rice, over the past year.
House Bill No. 9284 aims to amend the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016 and expand the scope of economic sabotage.
Under the measure, not only large-scale smuggling of agri-fishery commodities would fit the description, but also hoarding, profiteering, and cartelizing of agri-fishery and tobacco products.
The minimum threshold for market abuse involving agri-fishery products would be at P2.5 million. Under the original law, the threshold was P10 million for rice, and P1 million for sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, onion, carrots, fish, and cruciferous vegetables.
The bill also seeks to impose a minimum 20-year jail sentence for convicted individuals (up from the 12 years in the current law), and a monetary fine of six times the fair value of the smuggled agricultural product plus taxes (up from the current two times).
Alleged offenders of the measure would have five days to produce evidence to avert seizure and forfeiture of products and properties by the government.
Other key features of the bill include the creation of an Anti-Agri-Fishery Commodities and Tobacco Economic Sabotage Council that would oversee the law’s implementation, and a congressional oversight committee.
When the bill cleared the House on Wednesday, a total of 289 lawmakers voted in the affirmative, with no opposition or abstention.
“Through [the measure], increasing the certainty of being arrested, prosecuted, tried, and convicted would be the best deterrent… against the operations of smugglers, hoarders, and profiteers. We have improved the chances of finally convicting smugglers,” House agriculture committee Mark Enverga of Quezon’s 1st District said on Tuesday, September 26.
The Senate’s version of the bill was certified as urgent by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on September 21, Thursday. The chief executive did the same for the House version on Tuesday.
In a statement last Thursday, Senator Chiz Escudero wondered why the Bureau of Customs (BOC) has supposedly not yet filed criminal cases against suspected hoarders and smugglers of rice despite the raids in various warehouses .
“I have yet to hear a name that is responsible for the hoarding of the rice that BOC has raided. And why is it that not a single case has been filed against any individual, much less the disclosure of their names?” he said at the plenary during the interpellation on the Senate version of the bill.
In May, the House agriculture committee found that a cartel was behind the supposedly artificial surge in onion prices in the Philippines which, in January, was seven times higher than the global average.
In September, Marcos set a price cap on rice, in an attempt to discourage smugglers and hoarders from manipulating the market. – Rappler.com