‘Only in the Philippines’

Neither netizens, newspaper readers, radio listeners, nor TV news viewers seemed surprised. It was as if it was just what they expected would happen, but one could almost hear their sighs of resignation. Some went on to perorate on the double standard of justice in these parts with which they are so familiar, or to just repeat what has long been the more cynical’s flippant dismissal of such events: that “only in the Philippines” do certain things happen, such as —

• Too many police and military personnel escaping accountability for the massacres, arbitrary arrests, abductions and extrajudicial killings in which they have been implicated;

• The most brazen plunderers and thieves getting off scot-free and even being appointed to high office because they’re wealthy and/or well connected;

• Journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent judges, and critics of government being harassed, threatened, and even murdered with impunity, and the killings even being justified supposedly due to the victims being either corrupt or members of Communist Party “front” organizations;

and more recently —

• A former senator’s remaining in prison for five years as the resolution of the case against her is delayed again and again in court — in stark contrast to the lightning speed with which the drug trafficking case against the current Secretary of Justice’s son went through the courts and how he was acquitted a bare three months after he was allegedly apprehended with a shipment of high-grade marijuana.

It was not so much the acquittal of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla’s son, Juanito Diaz Remulla III, that called the public attention, but the speed with which his case was resolved. It suggests that, among other possibilities, the justice system could perform as well in other cases. If it cannot, however, it would reinforce the widespread belief that the system is broken and not working as it should in terms of assuring everyone of the equal protection of the law, and that the principle of justice for all regardless of economic and social status is being observed.

Department of Justice (DoJ) Chief Remulla had declared last October that he would inhibit himself from any involvement in the conduct of his son’s prosecution on drug trafficking charges. But that pledge was in denial of the fact that the responsibilities of his office demanded that he nevertheless be involved.

As this column noted then, the DoJ is the government’s principal law agency. Its many powers include the investigation and prosecution of suspected law breakers, and it is also the legal counsel of government. Justice Secretaries have authority over the National Prosecution Service (NPS) and decide on the prosecution of, or the dropping of charges against, alleged wrong-doers. They can also order the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), over which it also has authority, to investigate them should they think it necessary.

Remulla’s intervention in his son’s case would have constituted an obvious conflict of interest. But his not doing anything about it would have been in abdication of his duty to decide whether the evidence demands the prosecution of any individual or not.

Remulla’s son was eventually brought to court, which seemed to validate his promise not to intervene. But it did not dispel suspicions that he could have influenced the outcome of the case through any number of ways, because what was at stake was not only his son’s freedom but also his and his family’s future in Philippine politics and governance. His son’s conviction on drug trafficking charges could have weakened the Remulla dynasty’s hold on Cavite politics and even prevented any of its other members’ election to a national office, given the universal disdain attached to involvement in the drug trade, specially by the kin of a high government official.

But as crucial to how the case of Remulla’s son was so obviously quickly resolved is its contributing to perceptions on how broken is the Philippine justice system, which is already driving the continuing investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of former President Rodrigo Duterte and those of his officials who implemented his bloody “war on drugs.”

The ICC suspended its investigation on Duterte and company in 2021 when the Philippine government requested a “deferral.” But ICC Prosecutor Kharim Khan has since concluded that contrary to government claims that it was looking into the circumstances behind the thousands of deaths at the hands of the police during Duterte’s six-year “war on drugs,” only a small number of cases were actually being investigated and what the Duterte regime was doing was “a mere desk review.” Khan thus declared in September 2022 that the deferral request was without merit, and only last November asked the ICC to allow his office to resume its investigation.

Whether the ICC would eventually prosecute Duterte and company on charges of crimes against humanity or not depends on whether the Philippine justice system is perceived to be so fair as to prosecute alleged wrong-doers of whatever social, economic, or political status, or to be so biased in favor of the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-connected as to exempt them from any accountability. The latter conclusion would validate claims that without international legal assistance, the culture of impunity makes justice an impossible dream for most Filipinos. The ICC knows that by exempting wrong-doers from prosecution and punishment, impunity also encourages violence and other forms of lawlessness, not only against journalists, political and social activists, and human rights defenders, but also against ordinary folk.

The ICC decision to continue its investigation suggests that it is convinced that the Philippine justice system is not functioning as impartially as it should, which is just another way of saying that because that system penalizes the poor and the powerless twice— first by allowing those who persecute, harass and even murder them free rein, and then by denying them the justice that can only be realized through the prosecution of those responsible — the system is not working at all.

That conclusion is based not only on the many instances in which convicted felons end up luxuriating in their ill-gotten wealth and are even in government, while those accused of petty crimes rot in jail. There is as well the anomaly evident in the non-accountability of the killers of farmers demanding land reform, or of human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists protesting violations of the rights to free expression and due process. More currently, out of the 177 cases of journalists killed by those who resent their reporting and/or commentary, less than 20 have been resolved by the courts.

The consequences have since been evident in the common belief that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and powerless. But the justice system over which DoJ Secretary Remulla now presides could still gain some measure of credibility. Other than merely demonstrating its alleged impartiality in the case of such high-profile cases as its current Secretary’s son, it could also look into actively helping speed up the judicial process.

Hundreds if not thousands of individuals awaiting trial jam the country’s jails. Unable to pay bail and legal help, many are from the poorest sectors of the population, and have been imprisoned for years. The speedy resolution of their cases would go a long way in convincing the world that maybe — just maybe — the Philippine justice system is working, after all. Perhaps then, when describing that system, fewer citizens would throw up their hands to declare “only in the Philippines.”

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)

Published in Business World
January 19, 2023

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