Prosecution of scam artistsBy Raul J. Palabrica Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Barring last-minute hitches, the Department of Justice is expected to release this week (or next) its resolution on the syndicated estafa charges filed against businessman Manuel Amalilio and his associates in Aman Futures Group Phils. Inc.
Amalilio, whose nationality is still a big question mark (Filipino or Malaysian), is alleged to be the brains behind the P12-billion investment scam that reportedly victimized thousands of investors from the Visayas and Mindanao.
The directors and key officials of Aman Futures have filed their counter-affidavits to the charges. They have adopted a common line of defense: they are only officials in name and that Amalilio called all the shots in the scam.
In their desire to be named state witnesses and, hopefully, escape prosecution, they are practically tripping all over claiming to be least guilty. Their erstwhile boss, Amalilio, whom they looked up to earlier as a financial genius, is now the devil incarnate.
It does not come as a surprise that Amalilio is nowhere to be found. When things got hot, he supposedly took off for Malaysia and left his business partners to fend for themselves.
For failure to submit his counter-affidavit to the charges, he is deemed to have waived his right to present evidence on his behalf. That omission ensures he will be at the top of the list of the accused when the DOJ files the charges in court.
For the victims, it’s cold comfort that the people who played significant roles in the scam would be haled to court, tried and, if the evidence proves their guilt, put behind bars.
Based on existing judicial standards, the criminal process in Aman Futures may end after 10 to 12 years. By that time, most of the victims would either be six feet under the ground, physically debilitated or emotionally devastated.
Ideally, in a case like this involving tons of money, the participation of private prosecutors is essential to make sure it moves, the right witnesses are presented and judgment is promptly rendered.
Considering the victims’ poor financial standing, it is doubtful if they have the resources to engage the services of private lawyers, even on a collective basis, to defend their interests in court.
Paying for lawyers’ services would be like throwing good money after bad. Assuming the court finds the accused guilty and orders them to pay damages to the victims, whatever amount is recovered, if any, may have to be shared with the lawyers as part of their fees.
Under these circumstances, the public prosecutors are obliged to carry the ball for the victims from start to finish. They have to prepare and motivate them to attend and testify at the hearings and be ready with the documents to prove they did business with the accused.
Although conviction of the people behind the scam is the desired ending in this case, the victims’ ultimate “wish” is the recovery of their investments, the principal, at least, since the promised interests are pies in the sky.
Earlier news reports indicated that many of the victims had become destitute and the more desperate ones had resorted to crime in order to meet their financial needs.
The holiday season just passed must have been tough on the victims, especially the retirees who invested their retirement money in Aman Futures. The New Year does not hold any promise that they can get back their money any time soon.
The freeze order earlier issued by the Court of Appeals, upon the request of the Anti-Money Laundering Council, on some 141 bank accounts of Aman Futures’ officers and agents cannot be relied upon by the victims as a source for the recovery of their investments.
It’s unfortunate that the order came two months after the scam unraveled. With the victims either waiting for their money to be returned first or scared about spilling the beans, the AMLC cannot be faulted for the delay as it had no legal basis to apply for a freeze order with the court.
The time lag would have given the owners of bank accounts linked to Aman Futures or its officers the opportunity to withdraw their proceeds and stash them elsewhere to avoid the long arm of AMLC from getting hold of them.
Let us assume the freeze order was able to prevent further dissipation of the contents of the frozen bank accounts and substantial sums of money remain in them.
While the criminal proceedings are in progress, can those funds be taken over by the government and distributed, pro rata, among the victims, subject to their presentation of proof of their investments?
It is doubtful if the government can do that. In the first place, until the bank deposits are declared by a competent court to have been illegally acquired or are proceeds from a crime, they remain private funds.
The right of the registered bank depositors to withdraw their contents is merely suspended, not eliminated, by the freeze order. The Court of Appeals would have to rule, sometime in the future, whether those funds should revert to their owners or be forfeited in favor of the government or the scam victims.
Even if the court orders their distribution to the victims, the process of returning the money to the victims will not be easy.
Without any records from Aman Futures against whom names of investors and amounts of investment made can be checked, the distribution of assets would only engender more ill feelings and resentment among the victims.
Bottom line, the Aman Futures victims are in a no-win situation, regardless of the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
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