By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
Like many others, I welcomed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s action on Gloria M. Arroyo’s request to be allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment, and appreciated her reasons for denying it.
But I feel uneasy with the source of her authority to decide whether one can travel or not. It would have been better had the DoJ worked hard on the first plunder case against Arroyo brought to it early in the Aquino presidency, filed the case in court, and secured a hold-departure order against her. That would have accorded with the established process and, presumably, the Constitution.
As it is, de Lima’s order was rather belated when she barred Arroyo from travelling abroad while the cases of plunder, graft and election sabotage against her, her husband Mike, and other respondents continue to undergo preliminary investigation by DoJ prosecutors.
President Aquino backed de Lima’s action, boosting it with a gallant offer to fly in medical specialists of the ex-President’s choice to look into her health condition, at government expense.
P-Noy’s backing, however, hasn’t closed the issue. The Arroyo couple brought separate petitions before the Supreme Court, questioning the watch-list order’s legality and asking the tribunal to temporarily restrain the DoJ from implementing it. The SC is expected to take up the petitions on Nov. 15.
De Lima anchors her action on these grounds: 1) there is no convincing exceptional reason, circumstance or justification to grant the travel request; 2) there is no immediate and compelling need to seek treatment abroad, as attested to by Health Secretary Enrique Ona, because Arroyo is recuperating fairly well under treatment by local doctors using local facilities; 3) the interest of the state certainly weighs more than her right to travel; and 4) there are no existing extradition treaties in four of the six countries she plans to visit: Germany, Singapore, Spain, Italy. The two others, US and Switzerland, have such treaties with the Philippines.
An extradition treaty is crucial. It would enable the Philippines to demand from the host country Arroyo’s forcible return to face court trial should she decide not to do so.
That the DoJ restrains Arroyo’s right to travel based on Department Circular No. 41, issued by her last justice secretary, Alberto Agra — which she approved in June 2010, near the end of her term — hits her like karmic retribution. And the multitudes who hated the excesses of her nine-year presidency may hail this turn in her fortune as a turn for justice.
Specifically, the circular authorizes the DoJ to issue a watch-list order “against the respondent, irrespective of nationality, in criminal cases pending preliminary investigation, petition for review, or motion for reconsideration before the Department of Justice or any of its provincial or city prosecution offices.”
That sounds fair enough. Yet, Sen. Francis Escudero, Senate justice and human rights committee chair and P-Noy’s ally, called the document “an illegal and unconstitutional circular issued during GMA’s time… (which) was wrong and illegal then… still wrong and illegal now.” He didn’t elaborate. Not being a lawyer myself, I won’t comment on the legality issue.
But having been at the receiving end of a watch-list order issued by ex-justice secretary Raul Gonzalez, I would rather see the circular reviewed, if not revoked. This is because it can be gravely misused, no, abused, as it was during Arroyo’s watch.
In fact, Gonzalez had already been abusing his power long before Agra formulated the circular and Arroyo approved it. Maybe it merely “legalized” Gonzalez’s abusive acts, carried out in tandem with Norberto Gonzales, Arroyo’s national security adviser.
Through the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), created in January 2006, Gonzales and Gonzalez produced trumped-up charges to persecute effective critics of the Arroyo regime.
They started with a “rebellion” case against six progressive party-list members of the House of Representatives — we were the “Batasan 6.” We had to stay, under House protection, in the premises of the Batasan Complex for 71 days to prevent our arrest while we sought the dismissal of the spurious charge.
When the Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed for lack of merit, it admonished Gonzalez against allowing himself and state prosecutors to be used for political persecution. Pigheadedly, Gonzalez still induced the filing of more trumped-up criminal charges against me and several others.
Even without a hold-departure order from the court, Gonzalez issued one against me. After hearing oral arguments on my petition to dismiss a “multiple-murder” charge filed in a far-flung Leyte town, the SC granted me bail (indicating weak state evidence). Nonetheless, Gonzalez sought to stop me from leaving each time I was permitted by the Speaker of the House to travel abroad.
Thus, whenever I travelled I had to negotiate with Gonzalez. He allowed me only after I signed a manifestation that I would return on the date stated on my return-flight ticket. He even tried to gag me, demanding I should not speak against the Arroyo government abroad. I flatly refused to agree to such a violation of my right to free speech; he relented.
Still, it was only last July that I got out of the watch-list.
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November 12, 2011