MALACANANG, January 14, 2004
(STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo demanded yesterday an apology and an explanation from the United States government on the alleged harassment of 30 Filipino telecommunications executives by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The President took up the cudgels for the Filipino executives who were served subpoenas over the weekend by FBI officials in Honolulu to compel them to testify before a grand jury this week in relation to the ongoing investigation on the rate dispute between Philippine telecom companies and American carriers.

"The US government should explain its actions against our telecommunications executives," Mrs. Arroyo said in an official statement. "There must be amends if a mistake was made or if harassment is proven."

"We ask for decency and dignity in the treatment of Filipinos in legitimate business or work in a foreign land," she pointed out.

But although the President expressed dismay over the incident, she reaffirmed the strong friendship and alliance of the Philippines and the US.

"We have a strong, constructive relationship and this should not be marred by such incidents," she said.

The presidential statement came out as the Palace welcomed yesterday visiting US Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who was in town on a follow-through mission of one of the bilateral agreements reached during US President George W. Bush’s visit in Manila last October.

Spencer was accompanied to the Palace by Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert, US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and his counterpart, Ambassador to Washington Alberto del Rosario.

In an interview after the Palace meeting, Ricciardone, who was summoned by the foreign affairs chief on Monday to officially receive notice of the Philippines’ "concern and dismay" over the incident in Honolulu, said that the US State Department has already been notified and the US government is letting the industry take the lead.

"Because the (telecom) industry in both countries know this issue better than the governments can possibly can. And both governments have been trying to facilitate industry conversations," he said.

Just last week, Ricciardone emphasized, industry partners PLDT and AT&T forged an agreement regarding payment schemes.

"So I think both our governments are going to continue to work very hard to make sure the industry, the way forward for them is to facilitate it, that the discussions between them continues," he said.

The American ambassador refused to elaborate, citing that a lot of highly technical issues were involved and the case is already pending before the American judicial system.

He stated though that despite the incident, RP-US relations remain cordial and disclosed that there was no mention of the incident during Spencer’s courtesy call in Malacañang.

"Look, we’re close allies and friends," he told Palace reporters.

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said that Mrs. Arroyo had discussed with Albert the actions taken by the DFA in protecting the rights of the Filipino telecoms executives.

Negros Occidental Rep. Apolinario Lozada, chairman of the House committee on foreign relations, expressed strong support for the protests filed by the DFA against the US government.

"Such act ensures our independence and sovereignty as a nation especially during these times when the whole of Asia is being represented by the Philippines at the United Nations Security Council," he said.

For his part, Del Rosario said that he is leaving tomorrow for Washington DC and will immediately seek audience with the US State Department, the US Department of Justice and officials of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo has affirmed that Del Rosario has indeed been instructed to take charge of making official representations with concerned US government agencies on the matter.

Del Rosario said that the Philippines is taking the position that the US justice department’s initiative to investigate Filipino telecoms executives whether not there were violations of the US Anti-Trust Law on the increase of termination rates by Philippine carriers is "unfounded and totally baseless."

This is because the FCC and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) have already forged an agreement to allow Philippine telecom firms to initiate an agreement with American carriers, he said.

"I think all of the agreements, if I’m not mistaken, have already concluded in compliance with FCC and NTC. The investigation that is being conducted, we protested strongly as unfounded and baseless," Del Rosario said.

The investigation focuses on a row between US and Philippine telecommunication firms regarding the increase in rates on calls coming from the United States.

In an interview with The STAR yesterday, NTC Deputy Commissioner Jorge Sarmiento said that only last Jan. 5, NTC Commissioner Armi Jane Borje received a letter from FCC chairman Michael Powell assuring her that he is confident that all interested parties can work together to resolve their outstanding problems.

Thus, he said that it is possible that the US justice department’s anti-trust division, which initiated the complaint before the Honolulu grand jury, is working independently and has not been apprised by the FCC of progress already made.

"We are hoping that if the FCC appears before the grand jury, it will shed light on this matter to end the issue once and for all. We also hope that AT&T and MCI will tell the jury all the progress that has been made," Sarmiento said.

Meanwhile, he disclosed that the various Philippine telecom carriers implicated in the case are now conferring with their respective lawyers abroad to determine their next move.

At the Palace, Romulo echoed the optimism of the Palace and the American ambassador that the incident will not adversely affect RP-US relations.

"I hope it would not. I think probably there is some misunderstanding there. Because as far as I know the FCC has pending matters with the NTC. I think it’s just probably miscommunication between the US agencies," Romulo said. — With Mary Ann Reyes, Marvin Sy, Paolo Romero, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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