Days of Reckoning

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is not yet off the hook. She may have to face her day of reckoning as a private citizen or even before her term ends in 2010.

Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

The conviction of former President Joseph Estrada for plunder by the Sandiganbayan (anti-graft court) last September 13 does not necessarily show that the criminal justice system and presidential accountability in the Philippines work. Nevertheless, the Sandiganbayan’s decision can serve as a precedent whereby a President charged with committing graft and corruption or other heinous crimes can be brought to court after serving his or her term of office, or is ousted by extra-constitutional means.

Just like the Estrada plunder case, the one filed against First Lady Imelda Marcos for violation of Republic Act (RA) No. 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act) also ended in a conviction. The two cases were among the 11 high-profile cases handled by the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan over the past 10 years, supposedly filed to prove that public officials are not above the law. The conviction of Marcos, however, was reversed by the Supreme Court (SC). Her other cases were either dismissed, withdrawn or decided in her favor.

Estrada, who was ousted in the second people power uprising of January 2001, spent six years in detention at his rest house in Tanay, Rizal before the anti-graft court could come up with a decision. Aware that the former President remains a thorn to his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, allies of the latter had reportedly offered a graceful exit for Estrada which includes exile. Although deserted by some of his key political allies, including Sens. Edgardo Angara, Juan Ponce Enrile and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Estrada remained influential among opposition figures and is said to have backed some senatorial candidates in the previous two elections. His name was dragged into a couple of coup attempts against Macapagal-Arroyo.

Supreme Court

It is doubtful that the Sandiganbayan will change its decision once a motion for reconsideration is filed by Estrada’s lawyers. It is even equally absurd for the SC – the same tribunal that ruled on the legitimacy of Macapagal-Arroyo’s assumption to the presidency in 2001 – would reverse the anti-graft court’s decision.

Indeed, there is basis for people to think that Estrada’s plunder case has assumed a political character. On the part of Macapagal-Arroyo, the conviction puts to rest Estrada’s claim to the presidency. On the other hand, his possible detention at the national penitentiary may yet inflame outrage among Estrada supporters and could further enhance his popularity.

Speculations are thus rife that Macapagal-Arroyo may, within the next few weeks, grant a pardon to her political nemesis, a move that Estrada insists he will refuse. His chief legal counsel, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, hinted that an amnesty – endorsed by Senate President Manuel Villar and House Speaker Jose de Venecia – may be acceptable. Estrada’s son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, said that the offer is being considered.

As of this writing, Estrada said that he is open to an amnesty proposal, provided that such act does not manifest his guilt of any crime. There are legal questions, however, with regard to giving amnesty to Estrada. Unlike pardon which is granted to those who commit criminal acts (plunder being one of them), amnesty is given only to those who are convicted of political offenses.

Despite his posturing that he is ready to serve his sentence of reclusion perpetua, Estrada, who is already 70, should be pragmatic enough to concede that being out is better than being in jail. Administration allies want to close the chapter on the Estrada case supposedly to allow Macapagal-Arroyo to focus on her last three years in office.

Two impeachments; indictments

Compared to Estrada who was impeached once, his successor has been the target of two impeachment attempts in the House of Representatives in 2005 and 2006. The grounds for her impeachment – graft and corruption, stealing the presidency, culpable violation of the Constitution, extra-judicial killings – are definitely more staggering. The amount involved in the list of graft and corruption allegations –from the Diosdado Macapagal boulevard scam, election-related scandals, and the recent ones involving business transactions with China – could total more than P100 billion ($2.21 billion, based on an exchange rate of P45.31 per US dollar), way above the P4-billion ($88.28-million) plunder case against Estrada.

Unlike Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo has been indicted and found guilty in international tribunals in the Philippines and abroad – including the Citizens’ Council for Truth and Accountability (CCTA) in Quezon City in November 2005; as well as in Tokyo, New York, and recently, in Den Haag at the Permanent People’s Tribunal. Moreover, unlike Estrada who readily faced the Sandiganbayan, Macapagal-Arroyo has been unyielding to face the truth and is widely believed to have abused presidential power in order to evade impeachments and congressional investigations.

Such is the tragedy that has befallen the Philippine presidency. Corruption continues to embarrass the country, with two former presidents (Ferdinand E. Marcos and Estrada) in the list of 10 most corrupt heads of state in the world. In addition, former President Fidel Ramos remains accountable to many Filipinos for alleged corruption involving the PEA-Amari Manila Bay reclamation deal and the Fort Bonifacio privatization.

Macapagal-Arroyo is not yet off the hook. She may have to face her day of reckoning as a private citizen, if not before her term ends. Posted by Bulatlat

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