In a 24-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Arturo Brion, the SC’s Second Division agreed with Ligot’s petition contesting the six-month extension of the freeze order that the CA issued on July 5, 2005 and extended through an order issued on September 2005.
The CA order stemmed from the June 27, 2005 request of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to freeze the assets of Ligot, who is accused of amassing millions of pesos in ill-gotten wealth while he was comptroller of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from July 1999 to March 2001, and not declaring P54,001,217-worth of assets in his Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth.
In its decision issued on March 6, the high court acknowledged the CA findings that there is probable cause that the frozen assets could be related to or could be the product of unlawful activity.
“It should be noted that the existence of an unlawful activity that would justify the issuance and the extension of the freeze order has likewise been established in this case,” the SC said.
However, the high court faulted the CA for extending by six months the original freeze order, saying: “The effectivity of a freeze order may be extended by the CA for a period not exceeding six months.”
“Before or upon the lapse of this period, ideally, the Republic should have already filed a case for civil forfeiture against the property owner with the proper courts and accordingly secure an asset preservation order or it should have filed the necessary information,” the high tribunal said.
“Otherwise, the property owner should already be able to fully enjoy his property without any legal process affecting it,” the SC stressed.
The SC noted that the freeze order was issued in 2005, while the civil forfeiture case to recover Ligot’s assets was filed only in 2011.
“In this case, the period of inaction of six years, under the circumstances, already far exceeded what is reasonable,” the high court noted.
The SC also said in case there is a need to further extend a freeze order beyond six months, the government should give a reason and explain why it was not yet able to file a case after six months, as required under the Rule in Civil Forfeiture Cases.
“In the present case, we note that the Republic has not offered any explanation why it took six years [to file a case],” the SC said.
“Under these circumstances, we cannot but conclude that the continued extension of the freeze order heyond the six-month period violated the Ligots’ right to due process; thus, the CA decision should be reversed,” it added.
The SC, however, stressed that despite its favorable decision to the Ligots, its ruling should be “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.”
The high court was referring to the civil forfeiture case filed by the government with the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 22.
In conclusion, the SC said: “We remind the appellate court though that the government’s anti-corruption drive cannot he done at the expense of cherished fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution… As so oft-repeated, the end does not justify the means. Of primordial importance is that the means employed must be in keeping with the Constitution. Mere expediency will certainly not excuse constitutional shortcuts.” — KBK, GMA News