MANILA -- The Senate has no power to indefinitely detain a person cited in contempt during an inquiry in aid of legislation, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled.

The High Court handed the decision in connection with the petition filed by Aegis Juris fraternity leader Arvin Balag, who was detained at the Senate in October 2017 for contempt during the legislative inquiry on the hazing death of University of Santo Tomas (UST) law freshman, Horacio "Atio" Castillo III.

In a 21-page en banc decision dated July 3 penned by Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo, the Court held that the period of imprisonment under the inherent power of contempt of the Senate should only last until the termination of the legislative inquiry.

The Court said it has to “strike a balance” between the interest of the Senate and the rights of persons cited in contempt during legislative inquiries.

“Accordingly, as long as there is a legitimate legislative inquiry, then the inherent power of contempt by the Senate may be properly exercised. Conversely, once the said legislative inquiry concludes, the exercise of the inherent power of contempt ceases and there is no more genuine necessity to penalize the detained witness,” the Court declared unanimously.

The SC pointed out that legislative inquiry in aid of legislation terminates upon the approval or disapproval of the Committee Report and/or upon the term expiration of one Congress.

The Court noted that a previous ruling in Arnault vs. Nazareno held that the Senate "is a continuing body and which does not cease to exist upon the periodical dissolution of Congress or of the House of Representatives.

It also held that there is no limit as to time that the Senate can exercise its power to cite a person in contempt and acknowledged the possibility that the Senate might detain a witness for life being a continuing body.

Still, the Court refused to limit the period of imprisonment under the power of contempt of the Senate, saying that legislative functions may still be performed during recess by duly constituted committees charged with the duty of performing investigations or conducting hearings relative to any proposed legislation.

Balag was detained in the Senate on Oct. 18, 2017 after being cited in contempt for refusing to answer questions regarding his leadership and membership in the UST-based fraternity, during the probe into Castillo’s death.

In a petition filed last Oct. 25, the fratman sought a temporary restraining order against his detention and an order for his release.

He argued that the contempt order violated the constitutional right of persons appearing in legislative probes, as well as the right to fair trial, and that the investigation was not in aid of legislation but "in aid of prosecution."

Balag also claimed he was denied equal protection of the law, claiming that other resource persons who refused to answer "incriminating questions" of senators were not cited in contempt.

He repeatedly invoked his right against self-incrimination even when asked with simple questions of established points of fact.

The SC ordered Balag’s “interim release” in December 2017.

While it declared Balag’s petition questioning the legality of his detention by the Senate moot and academic, the Court noted that the petition “presents a critical and decisive issue” that must be resolved, which is the duration of the detention for a contempt ordered by the Senate.

“This issue must be threshed out as the Senate's exercise of its power of contempt without a definite period is capable of repetition,” the Court noted.

“Moreover, the indefinite detention of persons cited in contempt impairs their constitutional right to liberty. Thus, paramount public interest requires the Court to determine such issue to ensure that the constitutional rights of the persons appearing before a legislative inquiry of the Senate are protected,” it added.

In Balag’s case, the SC found “a genuine necessity” to place a limitation on the period of imprisonment that may be imposed by the Senate citing Section 21, Article VI of the Constitution, which obliges Congress to respect persons appearing in its inquiry in aid of legislation.

“While there is a presumption of regularity that the Senate will not gravely abuse its power of contempt, there is still a lingering and unavoidable possibility of indefinite imprisonment of witnesses as long as there is no specific period of detention, which is certainly not contemplated and envisioned by the Constitution,” the Court stressed.

The SC said if Congress would want to supplement its power of contempt by extending the period of imprisonment beyond the conduct of its legislative inquiry, it can enact a law or amend the existing law for such matter.

Aside from Balag, the accused were members of the fraternity -- Ralph Trangia, Oliver John Audrey Onofre, Mhin Wei Chan, Danielle Hans Matthew Rodrigo, Joshua Joriel Macabali, Axel Munro Hipe, Marelino Bagtang, Jose Miguel Salamat, and Robin Ramon currently detained at the Manila City Jail for violating RA 8049 or the Anti-Hazing Law and obstruction charges before the Manila RTC.

Castillo died after undergoing initiation rites in the hands of Aegis Juris fraternity members in September 2017. (PNA)