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.