October 2007


September 12th, 2007 was a momentous day in Philippine history. That was the day Joseph “Erap” Estrada was convicted of plunder, sending a message of warning to corrupt government officials and a message of reassurance to the Filipino people that money and prestige are not vaccines for justice. On that day it seemed the Philippines justice system had potential – and I urged that we not waste the opportunity.

On October 25th, 2007, that potential and opportunity – not to mention 6 ½ years of tense anticipation for the conclusion of a legal battle costly to taxpayers – were completely wasted. Just three days after Erap withdrew his motion for consideration and announced he would seek presidential pardon, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued executive clemency.

Much has been written about how the issuance of clemency is devastating to the rule of law, how President Arroyo is attempting to divert attention and forge new alliances in the wake of the ZTE scandal and her rift with House Speaker Joey de Venecia, and what this decision will mean for the future of the opposition, especially in the Senate. However, let us for a moment step back from these broad ideas and truly examine how the events these past three days have played out, so that we can truly appreciate how ridiculous and damaging they truly are.

On Monday, October 22nd, 2007, Estrada’s lawyers announced they would seek presidential pardon. That night there were reports that President Arroyo was “elated” at the news and instructed acting Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera to act on the matter right away. On Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007, Secretary Puno formally announced President Arroyo was ready to grant pardon and acting Secretary Devanadera had prepared a recommendation for executive clemency and was simply waiting for an official order from the Sandigbayan on Estrada’s withdrawal for reconsideration. On Thursday, October 25th, 2007, President Arroyo officially extended clemency to Estrada. The next day Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno delivered a copy of the clemency order to Erap’s guest house in Tanay, Rizal. Erap was a free man by Friday afternoon.

The extreme efficiency with which these events took place is strikingly uncharacteristic of the government, as demonstrated by its actions in other situations. As anyone who has attempted to obtain a driver’s license or has had a case in court can testify, going through official procedures within one government agency can be hard enough. Government officials constantly state to the media, “I’d like to take action A, but my hands are tied by agency B and required procedures C, D and E. One week after the tragic explosion in Glorietta 2, there are still no definite answers. However, the events leading to Estrada’s pardon passed through three government agencies (the Sandigbayan, the Department of Justice and the Office of the President) and began and ended within five days. Expedient government action is not a bad thing, in fact, government is meant to facilitate people’s lives, not hinder it with sluggish movement and arduous requirements. However, as the pardon itself demonstrates that there is inequality before the law, the government’s expedient actions demonstrate that the government can be efficient, but it only chooses to be efficient for VIP’s.

The reasoning behind granting executive clemency is such: the government has a policy of extending pardon to convicts age 70 and up, and Estrada is 70 years old, Estrada has already spent of 6 years in house arrest, and Estrada has “publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office.” The palace further informally rationalized the pardon by stating that surveys showed 80 percent of Filipinos support pardon.[i]

First, it is true that the Arroyo administration has a policy of granting clemency to inmates aged 70 and above. However, previous reports of invoking such a policy indicate that prison record and health conditions are supposed to be taken into consideration.[ii] Estrada, of course, has served no jail time and seems to be in excellent health. While the palace maintains that executive pardon is a presidential prerogative that cannot be questioned, in the interest of transparency, respect for due process and the principle of equality before the law, we should question this prerogative. The extension of clemency to Estrada as well as President Arroyo’s commutation of the sentence of multiple-count-convicted rapist Romeo Jalosjos earlier this year call into serious question whether the president uses any criteria when deciding to whom she extends pardon apart from her own political interests.

Second, while it is true that Estrada has been under detention for over 6 years, this “detention” occurred in his vacation home/resort in Tanay, Rizal. While poor people accused of stealing petty amounts are detained in tiny cells with a multitude of other accused and unsanitary (to put it mildly) conditions while they await trial, Estrada was detained in his own luxurious and expansive home; the kind of place the average Filipino would gladly be “detained” if circumstanced so allowed. Furthermore, “Most of Estrada’s requests to leave detention for a few hours or days were granted. The court gave him leeway to take short trips for reasons that ran the gamut from medical checkups and family occasions to special public affairs that enabled him to address big crowds and make newspaper headlines. He flew to Hong Kong for knee surgery, received eye treatment in Muntinlupa, bathed in miraculous waters in Caloocan, attended the wakes of his friends (actors Fernando Poe Jr. and Nida Blanca), spoke before El Shaddai devotees at the Quirino Grandstand.”[iii] Are we to believe that Estrada was granted clemency on the grounds that such “detainment” constitutes an adequate punishment for billions of ill-gotten wealth?

Third, Estrada is currently claiming that he will no longer seek public office. What does seeking public office have to do with justice for plunder? This reason shows that the Arroyo administration is not even attempting to hide the political motivations behind its pardon. Furthermore, if President Arroyo takes time to contemplate the value of Estrada’s statement, she will see that it is of little consequence. Even while in detention, Estrada was a powerful political force, able to bankroll and campaign for political candidates of his choosing. Just because Estrada claims that he has no intention to run for political office himself, does not mean that he will not be the puppeteer behind any number of candidates. Furthermore, as Estrada himself stated about his claim, however jokingly, “I did not say that in writing.”[iv]

Fourth, although it was not cited as an official reason for the pardon, Secretary Puno claimed that public opinion was a factor in the decision, as a private study President Arroyo commissioned found that 80 percent of Filipinos favored a pardon. This reason is perhaps the most ridiculous of the four. It is incredible to think that a president who has had a continually negative public approval rating, who has and continues to push through with a plethora of widely unpopular programs (the Human Security Act, CyberEd, and, of course, the now defunct ZTE) is suddenly sensitive to public opinion. Furthermore, the survey on pardon that Malacañang supposedly conducted was only made known to the public on Wednesday, October 24th, two days after Estrada asked for pardon and one day before it was given. Furthermore, Malacañang refused to reveal the firm commissioned to conduct the survey or details about how the survey was conducted.[v] Are we to believe that a survey representative of the will of the Filipino people was conducted within two days? And if such a survey was commissioned, who did it and where did the money come from? Once again, the Arroyo administration is using lies to avoid responsibility and tell us what we want.

The terms of Estrada’s clemency are such: Estrada’s civil and political rights are restored, all seizures by the Sandigbayan remain in effect, including P545.29 million with interest in jueteng payoffs, the “Boracay” mansion in New Manila, Quezon City, the P200 million in the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation, and the P189 million commission from the purchase of Belle Corp. shares.[vi]

Estrada will not dispute the forfeiture of the material seizures because he maintains that they are not his. Correct, Mr. Estrada, they are not yours. In essence, the terms of Estrada’s clemency are that he must return that which he obtained by plunder. Is this a punishment? Do we punish thieves by simply asking them to return what they have stolen? Such a principle would only encourage more stealing as the only consequence would be returning what was not yours to begin with. Many have criticized Erap’s disrespect of the courts when he said his decision to move for pardon came when he realized that he cannot win in an unfair justice system. However, Erap got it at least partially right. While the courts may not be to blame, the intrusion and negation of their decision by the executive amounts to an unfair justice system; and with an unfair justice system we all lose.


[i] Mia Gonzalez. “Erap pardoned, goes home today.” Business Mirror. October 26, 2007.

[ii] “PGMA pardons 18 more inmates.” Office of the Press Secretary. September 14, 2005.

[iii] Volt Contreras. “Detained, Estrada freed to make history, build legacy.” September 9, 2007.

[iv] Marichu Villanueva. “GMA Pardons Erap.” Philippine Star. October 26, 2007

[v] Sherwin C. Olaes and Jojo Arazas. “Palace seeks public pulse on Erap pardon.” The Daily Tribune. October 25, 2007.

[vi] Jocelyn Uy, Christine Avedaño. “Arroyo Pardons Erap.” Inquierer. October 26, 2007.

Mga Kapatid:

This month witnessed an incredible display of mobilization among Filipinos and Filipino-Americans as people took to the internet, to the newspapers, and to the streets to exclaim their anger over a single line on Desperate Housewives.

I agree that outrage and action were justified; Filipino-Americans cannot allow such comments, even if they are just “in passing” or “jokes.” However, I also agree with the sentiment of most opinion columnists here in the Philippines: Why is it so easy for Filipinos and Filipino-Americans to organize, mobilize and act over less than 1 minute of a fictional drama, while there is little or no reaction to the ongoing and very real drama we are all living through?

We here in the Philippines are at a point of complete frustration. Over the past few months we have witnessed the unfolding of one scandal after another:

1) The $364 million USD (that’s right, US Dollars, not Philippine Pesos) ZTE National Broadband Network deal, which was overpriced by $160 million so that there would be adequate funds to bribe competing firms, bribe people within government to stay silent, and line the pockets of first gentleman Mike Arroyo and former Comelec Chief Benjamin Abalos.

2) The PhP 26.5 billion CyberEd deal, wherein the Philippines would get a loan from the Chinese government and award a contract to a Chinese firm to install satellite TV in almost all public schools in the nation. Mind you, the vast majority of public schools do not have adequate rooms, chairs, toilets, water or electricity (electricity, by the way, is necessary for TV).

3) The 3-page joke of an impeachment claim filed in the House of Representatives, which came complete with offers of up to Php 2 million from KAMPI (the President’s party) members to members of the opposition in order to support the claim. There is allegedly an attempt to get the opposition to support the weak impeachment claim in order to block a real impeachment claim for the following year. (The Constitution says only 1 impeachment claim can be filed per year).

4) The October 11 meeting at Malacañang, where 190 congressmen and 48 provincial governors were handed between PhP 200,000 and PhP 500,000 each in paper bags. The office of the President and various cabinet departments are all contradicting each other as they point wily fingers at each other while simultaneously confirming and denying that any money was handed out in the first place.

5) The revelation that Erap is now seeking complete amnesty from the President, and the President, “elated,” has ordered the Department of Justice to move swiftly on the matter. After 2 People Powers which divided the nation, 6 years of waiting for a result, and a guilty verdict that gave many hope that justice in this nation could prevail over wealth and connections, what are we left with?

And then comes the catastrophic #6: The explosion at Glorietta Mall on Friday afternoon which killed 11 and wounded almost 100. The investigation is still going on to uncover the real cause of the explosion, but this has not stopped various factions from airing their conspiracy theories. Fingers have already been pointed at the Rajah Solaiman/Abu Sayaaf/insert generic Muslim extremist group, rogue elements of the military, opposition forces, and even the Ayala group itself. The most common theory at this point, alarmingly, is that the bombing was a diversionary tactic by the GMA administration itself in order to take attention away from scandals #1-5 above.

I do not know if the administration is responsible and I will not venture an opinion as I believe it would be counter-productive at this point. However, the very fact that people believe their own government is responsible for this act of mass murder is a testament to the sorry state of Philippine politics today. People do not trust the government. They do not trust what Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says. They truly believe that Madame Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is so desperate to hold on to power that she would resort to such acts. In the end, we cannot blame the people, as the almost 900 dead and disappeared journalists and activists since Madame assumed the presidency in 2001 demonstrate that this is an administration willing to turn a blind eye to murder, if not commit murder itself.

And this is all happening as the United Nations in New York is being presented with a report on the state of human rights in the Philippines this very week. UN rapporteur Philip Alston has prepared a damning report; presenting the status of human rights in the Philippines as under attack and identifying the Armed Forces of the Philippines as the main violator. In response, GMA has sent Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita to the UN to work damage control. Ermita will be in New York until Sunday, October 28.

Where are the hurting masses who claim to be fighters for the dignity of our people? Why can we be so angry at an actress reciting lines and not at a president who recites whatever excuses she can to stay in power? Why is it that we are offended by a network insensitive to our race, but not by members of our own race who, instead of protecting and supporting us, lie, steal, cheat and kill us?

If ever there is a cause for which Filipino-Americans and Filipinos all over the world should mobilize, that cause is the escalating crisis in our nation. Ermita is in New York right now. Show him that Filipinos living abroad care about what is happening back home. Whether or not you choose to believe it, it affects you too.

Written by my IPD Co-worker, Aya Fabros in a jarringly eloquent flurry of angst

The past couple of weeks, we’ve been bombarded with news of one government
scandal after another. From the ZTE-NBN deal and golf meeting offers to
the impeachment vote bribes, to the Malacanang brown paper pabaons, this
unfolding series brings together a cast from various government units, as
it bares exchanges among powerful players including appointed and elected
officials. It’s not just the scale of corruption and the amount of bribes
and kickbacks that make the cases shocking and explosive. It’s also the
way that the cases are insidiously interconnected, rather than separate,
isolated incidents. We bear witness to a trail of kickbacks and bribes,
one deal spawning, requiring, demanding yet another, underscoring the
critical engine that actually drives this government: grease money.

The ZTE-NBN project alone demonstrates the kind of grease going around
these days. If we go by Joey De Venecia’s statement, the project was
overpriced 100%, with at least $160 million dollars alloted for the
pockets of Mike ‘Mystery Man’ Arroyo and other related ‘items’ such as pay
offs and bribes to competing firms (Amsterdam Holdings, 10 million
dollars), possible collaborators (NEDA chief Romulo Neri was offered 200
million pesos), and close cohorts (COMELEC Commissioner Abalos, ? ) The
Chinese government provides a soft loan to cover the bloated cost of the
project, under the condition that a Chinese firm bags the deal. ZTE gets
the broadband project, Mystery man and Co anticipates its cut, Comelec
Commissioner goes around offering bribes to swing officials in favor of
ZTE, a competing firm proposing a BOT scheme is told to ‘back off’ and we
almost end up with yet another anomalous debt.

The dimensions of this sort of plunder is so incomprehensible, it has to
be spelled out. We’re talking about officials incurring loans, with our
names on it, that only serves to fatten their bank accounts. We’re talking
about $ 160 million dollars worth of grease that adds to our national
debt, which we end up paying for, with our taxes. The three percent
interest on the grease alone translates to an added burden of
approximately $ 4.8 million dollars. That’s an added P 211 million pesos
worth of interest payments, that we have to shoulder each year, thanks to
their kick backs and cuts. We’re talking about the way, our government
officials, their friends and families, can just easily cook up such a
scam, at our expense. It’s an unbelievably shameless and incorrigible
scheme that they expected to carry out right before our noses. That is,
until Joey de Venecia exposed the whole scam, which led to a senate
inquiry and headline after headline that links the president’s family to
our generation’s Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. GMA retreats and the ZTE-NBN
deal is scrapped. But then again, it doesn’t end there.

The $ 329 ZTE-NBN scam generated enough dirt for the president to get
impeached, analysts say. The impeachment buzz over the ZTE-NBN scandal
begets new cases of bribery and pay offs to insulate the president. Listen
to the reports and you’ll find an exaggerated version of the gameshow
‘Deal or No Deal. Those who go ‘deal’, get as little as P 200,000 to as
much as $ 10 million dollars. Before ZTE spilled over to Congress, Joey de
Venecia was being offered $ 10 million dollars by Abalos, just so he would
‘back off’ the project. Former NEDA Chief Romulo Neri would’ve gotten P
200 million, had he accepted Abalos’ proposition. Representatives in the
house were offered P 2 million pesos, according to Represenative Beltran,
to favor the ‘weak’ impeachment. Governors and Mayors, according to Gov.
Ed Panlilio, got loot bags containing P 200,000 to P 500,000 after their
breakfast meeting in Malacanang. It’s these ‘deals’ that seem to link the
different government agencies and institutions, from COMELEC to NEDA to
CONGRESS to MALACANANG down to the different LGUs of the archipelago.
Rather than set up a broadband network that would ensure the smooth
coordination of government offices, this whole National Broadband Network
episode brought to light an existing ‘ bribeband network’ that facilitates
the sinister collusion of government officials.

Of course, grease money isn’t just about who gets how much. It’s about
projects being bloated to accommodate the kind of grease that has to go
around. It’s about loans we have to make to finance the grease projects.
It’s about anomalous debts that taxpayers have to pay. It’s about Comelec
commissioners suddenly becoming jetsetters, spreading the word about a
project that promises to link up the different agencies of government,
dangling millions of pesos for possible ‘interagency collaboration’. It’s
about impeachment cases being resolved in Malacanang and not in the halls
of Congress. It’s about our representatives being bought. It’s about cash
being spread around to keep the whole thing together.

In every sense of the term, SOP, the euphemism for cuts, kickbacks and
payoffs, has become standard operating procedure, spearheaded by the
highest officials of the land. Standard operating procedure describes the
way millions can be offered and taken so casually and so frequently. It
portrays the manner that this perverse protocol has become so ubiquitous
and pervasive. It explains how easily certain officials can turn their
backs, invoke executive privilege and move along, just because they didn’t
take the money. It captures how other officials can promptly rationalize
their acts, even if they did take the money. It accounts for elected
officials just going public about how these gifts are actually ‘common
practice’. It depicts the way a president can get away with just saying
“huwag mong tanggapin”. It tells us why we can just shake off the news,
and ignore the fact that this whole fiasco started escalating around the
same time the budget hearings have been taking place in Congress.

Think about it. On the one hand, long grueling debates on how to make ends
meet, extensive discussions on how much money should go to which agency,
how little is left to health, education and other social services. On the
other hand, quick, casual meetings, with hundreds of millions of pesos up
for grabs in just one encounter, where half a million can easily be handed
out, to hundreds of officials– no vouchers, no line items, no questions
asked. Now, what’s wrong with this picture?

What we are seeing now tells us that grease money does not only
‘facilitate’ transactions (‘pampadulas’). It characterizes how state
institutions relate with each other. It determines which policies,
projects and programs are thought of, initiated and carried out. It
dictates the sort of loans and deals we get into. It defines the way this
government operates. Forget about sound governance and a strong republic,
this is how things are run under the Grease Money Administration. The
thing is, as SOPs have gone higher and higher, our standards of governance
have sunk lower and lower.

A major challenge faced by courts in the third wave of democratization is the combination of their power and their “newness.” In countries with established court systems, the power of the court relies greatly on “established prestige, tradition, or long-standing public acceptance to command respect and obedience.” Constitutional courts in new democracies, however, lack the benefit of tradition and so must find alternative ways to establish their power and authority in order to fulfill their roles as mentioned above. Furthermore, “they must establish themselves in societies that have long considered either executive authority or parliamentary sovereignty as the primary source of law and judges as mere bureaucrats.”[1]

 

In the Philippines, the Supreme Court faces a similar situation. In the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court is granted the power to determine questions of law and constitutionality. Especially given the broad principles and extensive protections of individual rights promulgated in the constitution, the potential for the Supreme Court’s power is great. However, the Court has hesitated in establishing itself and has often yielded to the assertions of other branches of government….

Read on


[1] Smithey, Shannon Ishiyama. “Comparing Courts in Democratic Transitions.” International Politics 38 (June 2001): 283-290

Abalos Resigns

 

I would like to commend now former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos for resigning his post after innumerable controversies surrounding election irregularities and the National Broadband Network contract.

Several Philippine figures, including CBCP president Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, have noted that in other countries, officials accused of graft and corruption or who face public disapproval often volunteer to resign. Because such officials could still face criminal charges after resignation, these resignations are not so much for the personal benefit of the officeholder, but for the benefit of the office. Volunteering to resign saves the individual and the country from the possibility of disgraceful impeachment proceedings. More importantly, however, distancing the corrupt practices of an individual from the official position he or she holds defends the sanctity of and respect for the office as an institution. Furthermore, voluntarily resigning in the face of public disapproval defends the basic principle of democracy. Democracy at its most fundamental is rule by the people; the people do not need formal election or impeachment proceedings to voice their will and officials do not need such proceedings to follow that will.

Philippine politics, however, has conspicuously lacked officials with the integrity to resign in the face of corruption charges and public disapproval in order to save the sanctity of their offices. The standard operating procedure of such officials has mainly been denial despite whatever testimony and evidence may be presented. They often vocally invite probes claiming they would only confirm their innocence, then work to block or delay investigations. After a span of time when both the investigators and the public feels somewhat frustrated at the slow pace of investigation, the officials ask that for the sake of unity and progress we forget about the controversy and move on. The most obvious and scarring example of such tactics is the “Hello Garci” controversy, where the Arroyo administration denied wrongdoing, blocked submission of evidence and testimony of key witnesses, and then asked that the country simply forget about it.

This was the standard operating procedure, that is, until October 1st, when Atty. Abalos, chose to resign. Abalos faced mounting calls for his resignation, especially from the House of Representatives which was preparing to file for his impeachment. More importantly, however, he faced growing disapproval from all classes and sectors of society, and presided over a Comelec which had lost prestige and the trust of the people. Abalos’ move to resign was an honorable one, as he can no longer use his post as Comelec commissioner to protect personal allegations, and the Comelec as an institution will no longer suffer due to the negative image and alleged misdeeds of its now former commissioner.

This is the second time in the past month when democratic principles have asserted their strength over traditional Philippine politik. The guilty verdict of Joseph “Erap” Estrada earlier this month was in and of itself a victory for justice and democracy. No matter what political manipulations may ensue in the following months, Erap’s conviction will stand as a powerful symbol that democratic institutions should and can prevail over power, wealth and connections. Abalos’ resignation echoes such symbolism. Our democracy does have the potential to work. In the enduring words of Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a-changin’.”