Philippine senators today debated whether or not the alleged stolen funds recovered from casino junket operator Kim Wong could be turned over to the government of Bangladesh without a court's order.
The issue came up after the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) sought the opinion of the Senate blue ribbon committee investigating the alleged $81-million money laundering scheme about the money Wong had turned over to its office.
Wong had so far turned over $4.6 million to the AMLC and another P38 million, which were believed to be part of the funds allegedly stolen by computer hackers from the Bangladesh's central bank that slipped through the Philippine financial system.
He also promised to surrender another P450 million within 15 to 30 days.
But AMLC Executive Director Julia Bacay-Abad told the committee that the documents accompanying the delivery of the money "indicated" that the money was just for "safekeeping."
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, chair of the committee, asked Wong and his lawyer, Inocencio Ferrer, if they had any objection to turning over the money to the Bangladesh government.
"Sa akin ho OK po " a hesitant Wong said, but added it would still be up to his lawyer.
Ferrer confirmed that they surrendered the money to the AMLC for safekeeping.
"Why your honor? Because number one, the law creating AMLC provides a process, the AMLC could not just automatically give the funds to a claimant without going through the process," he said.
"I think the law provides the filing of a forfeiture proceeding because nobody knows who owns the fund. Secondly, we'd like to give due respect to the honorable Senate blue ribbon committee because it's your committee that requested to turn over (the money) "
But Senate Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he could not recall that the committee made a specific request for Wong to surrender the money for safekeeping.
"Mr. Chair, I think that while we want to help Bangladesh on this matter because we expect them to help us if we're in the same boat, the point is we have to observe our law as they will also observe their law and I don't think a committee of the Senate or even the Senate can compel any citizen of this country to surrender anything to anybody until the courts of this republic will say so," Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile said.
Guingona, however, made it clear that the body did not compel Wong to turn over the money, saying the AMLC would just want to get the consent of the junket operator.
"The tendency, if you're in a place of a citizen, the tendency of the request of a committee is in effect a compulsion," Enrile said.
"I'm not lawyering for anybody here but I was present when the committee asked Mr. Wong whether he would surrender the amount in his possession," he said.
Abad explained that the government need not have to go through the legal process of filing a petition for civil forfeiture in court if Wong would give his consent to turn over the money to the Bangladesh government.
"We can dispense with the civil forfeiture if Kim Wong would manifest his willingness to turn over the money to the Bangladesh government at this moment," she said.
While there was no question that Bangladesh was the claimant of the money, Enrile pointed out that the money was within the jurisdiction of the Philippines.
"We must follow the laws of the country. We'll have to go through the process embodied in the laws so that the government can turn over this money to the government of Bangladesh. We can't perform the function of the judge here, we are legislators," Enrile added.
Source: The Daily Star