Making light of perjury

Francisco Ed. Lim

Perjury is one of the vilest crimes that one can commit. With the stroke of a pen or slip of the tongue, it can ruin a man’s reputation, or worse, send him to a detention cell or prison.

It is a fatal weapon—devious, cheap and easily accessible. Like poison, it leaves its victim in shambles, a shadow of his former self; while the perpetrator is scot-free to roam around. (We will never know whether those implicated by perjured statements are indeed guilty of the acts imputed against them, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt in deference to the constitutionally enshrined presumption of innocence.)

Indeed, media is ripe with stories of witnesses executing sworn statements before investigators or testifying in Congress only to retract or present a conflicting testimony later on. Most recent examples are Arthur Lascañas on the alleged existence of Davao Death Squad and Ronnie Dayan on his and Senator Leila de Lima’s purported involvement in the illegal drug trade of Kerwin Espinosa. They would subsequently change their stories.

These situations are enough to make lady Artemis want to remove her blindfold herself. It seems that anyone can just get away with perjury.

In other jurisdictions, people go to jail for lying under oath. A recent example is Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan who was sentenced by a district judge in the United States for lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in connection with the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller on the alleged collusion between President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. He is the son-in-law of one of Russia’s richest men.

So what is the problem with perjury in the Philippines?

Here, the crime is a form of false testimony punishable under the Revised Penal Code. The other forms of false testimony are false testimonies in judicial proceedings (Articles 180-182) and offering false testimony as evidence (Article 184).

Under the Revised Penal Code, perjury does not refer to testimonies in court. It refers to either of two acts done out of court: (1) falsely testifying under oath in a proceeding other than a criminal or civil case; and (2) making a false affidavit before a person authorized to administer an oath on any material matter where the law requires an oath (Article 183). Examples include false statements contained in affidavits executed before the police, National Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Justice and testimonies before the Senate and House of Representatives.

Perjury here faces only a light penalty, i.e. imprisonment from four months and one day up to two years and four months. This is in stark contrast to how the United States, both on the federal and state levels, deals with the act. The penalty in some prominent states (i.,e., California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Florida) can extend up to 10 years imprisonment depending on the circumstances.

Some Filipino lawmakers have already noticed this gap in the law. As early as 2004, then Senator Alfredo Lim filed Senate Bill 1316 proposing to increase the penalty of perjury to imprisonment of six years and one day to 10 years. It also proposed to penalize a person who induces another to commit perjury (subornation of perjury) in the same manner as a perjurer, something which is absent in current laws.

In the current Congress, Senator Leila de Lima filed SB 1359, which proposes the same penalty sought under SB 1316. De Lima’s version likewise seeks to increase the penalty for subornation of perjury to 12 years. Obviously, drawing from the personal experience of its author, the bill proposes that if the person responsible for subornation is a public officer or employee, the penalty can include 30 years imprisonment and perpetual disqualification from holding any appointive or elective office.

The big question is whether this reform measure will see the light of day or suffer the same fate as Lim’s bill.

My guess is as good as yours.

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