FAQ: Immunity to witnesses in legislative hearings
MANILA, Philippines – The Senate and the House of Representatives have one primary function – to create laws – but in recent years, they have taken up investigations and hearings on various corruption issues and governance controversies.
In these hearings, Congress usually invites resource persons to testify and present information on alleged government wrongdoing. Some of these resource persons have sought immunity to protect themselves from being slapped with criminal charges due to the information they divulge.
Here are some details on the process and qualifications for obtaining congressional immunity as a resource person in Congress.
Who are qualified to obtain immunity?
Under Republic Act 6981 or the "Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act", witnesses who have knowledge or information about a crime and are willing to testify may be admitted under the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Witnesses in legislative investigations may be admitted into the WPP upon the recommendation of the legislative committee where his testimony is needed.
This recommendation must be approved by either the Senate President or the House Speaker.
The DOJ then makes the final approval on whether or not to accept a potential witness to the program.
State witnesses are granted immunity from criminal prosecution for the offenses in which his testimony will be used. (FAQ: On becoming a state witness)
What are the requirements for admission into the WPP?
State witness applicants must have a testimony that can be substantially corroborated in its material points. The offense in which his testimony will be used must be a grave felony.
Applicants should not be law enforcement officers, although if this is the case, his immediate family members may be admitted into the program.
There should also be proof of threat or bodily injury or harm to the applicant or a member of his family within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity.
Does the Senate or House have its own witness protection program?
Leaders of Congress can recommend the admission of a witness into the DOJ's WPP, but the Senate and the House currently do not have their own witness protection program.
There have been proposals in the past to amend this. During the 15th Congress, Senator Francis Escudero filed Senate Bill 2368, seeking to provide a separate witness protection program for resource persons invited to legislative investigations.
Under this proposal, the Senate or the House will have primary jurisdiction over the administration of this program. Congress can also promulgate its own rules in the implementation of the program.
In the 17th Congress, Senator Joel Villanueva and Capiz 2nd District Representative Fredenil Castro have also filed similar bills – Senate Bill 1016 and House Bill 908 – seeking the creation of the same program.
Who have been granted legislative immunity?
Six witnesses testifying in the House probe into the drug proliferation inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) were granted immunity on Thursday, September 20.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II had asked the House committee on justice to grant the witnesses immunity from suit, which was granted by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Following the process, it is the DOJ that is the last to give its approval, but in this case, the move was initiated by Aguirre himself during the hearing.
At the height of the pork barrel scam cases in 2014, former Technology Resource Center director general Dennis Cunanan testified before the Senate and tried to apply for immunity, but this was denied. – Rappler.com