MANILA, Philippines - Citing the government's failure to immediately file a case against former military comptroller Jacinto Ligot, the Supreme Court lifted a 2005 freeze order issued by the Court of Appeals on his assets amounting to P54 million.
The SC, in a decision dated March 6, said the indefinite period of the freeze order violates Ligot's right to due process. The CA first issued the freeze order on July 5, 2005 after finding probable cause that the said amount could be linked to Ligot's failure to disclose P54 million worth of assets in his 2003 statement of assets, liabilities and networth.
The CA extended the freeze order on September 20, 2005 "until after all the appropriate proceedings and/or investigations have been terminated."
Ligot, his wife and children are accused of amassing P700-million in ill-gotten wealth from the coffers of the military. They asked the CA to lift the freeze order on their assets in 2005 but the appellate court denied his motion in 2006 and subsequently in 2007. He then elevated the case to the SC.
He and his wife Erlinda are out on bail over a separate case - a P400-M tax evasion case. A recommendation by the justice department to charge them with plunder did not prosper.
The controversy involving Ligot eventually trigerred a Senate probe that led to the 2011 testimony of his former staff, ex-Lt Col George Rabusa, who said senior generals were given millions in cash monthly as part of their allowance. The scandal caused former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, a close associate of Ligot and Rabusa, to kill himself.
When he was a general, Ligot's take-home pay was only about P40,000 a month.
The SC second division, in a decision penned by Justice Arturo Brion, ruled on March 6 that the decision of the CA not only deprives Ligot of his right to due process but also violates his right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The SC added that the government failed to offer any explanation why it took them 6 years to file a civil forfeiture case against Ligot.
"In more concrete terms, the freeze order over the Ligots’ properties has been in effect since 2005, while the civil forfeiture case – per the Republic’s manifestation – was filed only in 2011 and the forfeiture case under RA No. 1379 – per the petitioners’ manifestation – was filed only in 2012," the SC said.
"This means that the Ligots have not been able to access the properties subject of the freeze order for six years or so simply on the basis of the existence of probable cause to issue a freeze order, which was intended mainly as an interim preemptive remedy."
The SC stressed that the "period of inaction of six years, under the circumstances, already far exceeded what is reasonable."
The High Court said a freeze order is only temporary, adding it even issued a rule specifying that it should be extended not longer than 6 months to balance the state's right to prosecute erring public officials with the individual's right to due process.
The SC issued A.M. No. 05-11-04 which limited the effectivity of an extended freeze order to six months.
"We remind the appellate court that the government's anti-corruption drive cannot be done at the expense of cherished fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution," it said.
The Court said though that the lifting of freeze order is "without prejudice to, and shall not affect, the preservation orders that the lower courts have ordered on the same properties in the cases pending before them."
Ligot faces a civil forfeiture case at a Manila regional trial court.- Rappler.com