SHORTLY before six in the evening today, Malacañang announced that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has granted executive clemency to convicted former President Joseph Estrada, defying the warnings of civil-society groups, prosecution lawyers in the plunder trial, and that of another former chief executive, Fidel Ramos.
The order to grant pardon to Estrada came only one and a half months after the guilty verdict and the concomitant penalty of reclusion perpetua handed down by the Sandiganbayan on the ousted president for the capital offense of plunder. Press Secretary and Acting Executive Secretary Ignacio Bunye read what he called was a “very important order” granting Estrada pardon as premised on the following:
- the policy of releasing prisoners who have reached the age of 70;
- that Estrada has been under detention for six and a half years; and
- that Estrada has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office.
With the executive clemency, Estrada’s civil and political rights are restored, although the forfeitures imposed by the Sandiganbayan “remain in force and in full, including all writs and processes issued by the (court) in pursuance thereof, except for the bank accounts he owned before his tenure as president.”
The pardon shall take effect upon Estrada’s acceptance of the order.
Early this week, civil-society groups expressed opposition to reports being floated that Malacañang was considering granting Estrada “unconditional pardon.” Leah Navarro of the Black and White Movement said this sends the wrong message to the people, that “it’s all right to plunder, as long as you can cut a deal with those in power.”
Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio lamented that this would put to waste six years of hard work and expenses in trying to convict Estrada on plunder charges. Ignacio added that the issuance of pardon did not follow proper procedure and even lacks documents.
Yesterday, ex-President Ramos added his voice to those warning Arroyo not to be hasty in giving executive clemency to Estrada, saying it would be a “terrible calamity to the great majority of Filipino people who have suffered from the plunder that has been proven in court beyond reasonable doubt.”
“She should weigh what ordinary people might do, or what the families of those who are convicted and detained in the national penitentiary might do,” Ramos remarked. “If everybody is equal under the law, why not also them?”
Those pleas have apparently fallen on deaf ears.
But Estrada lawyer, former Senator Rene Saguisag, who says he goes by the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, believes the pardon was done with the “highest national interest” in mind.
Pardon, like amnesty, he says, is “a tyrant’s attempts to make up for his/her injustices,” alluding to the “unconstitutional” manner of Estrada’s removal from office in 2001. In contrast, he says “everything here (pardon) is legal, constitutional.”
Granting pardon to convicted criminals is the sole prerogative of the President.
To Saguisag, pardon was also the “best solution” for a closure to the events that began in 2001. “It is not only popular but also right for the vast majority of our people.”
Hearing the news, a shocked Villa-Ignacio says Arroyo’s decision only betrays a lack of political will on her part to enforce the court’s ruling to convict Estrada. “It goes to show that the government has no political will to enforce the decision by the judicial department, and in the end, it has no political will to fight corruption,” he says.
University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque says this recent act was only typical of Arroyo’s “transactional politics” as it again allows her to defuse the growing tension faced by her administration for the national broadband network deal and the “cash gifts” scandal.
However, Roque sees the executive clemency as “not intended to favor Estrada, but to favor Arroyo, to ensure more stability so she can continue governing even if she has no concept of good governance.”
This view is shared by Akbayan party-list chair emeritus Loreta Ann Rosales. “The capacity to grant an official convicted of corruption executive clemency could only come from a president who is all too willing to commit the same crime and expect that the same privilege would be extended to her once she faces accountability for her own crimes.”
Saying no one should be above the law, not even a popular president, Rosales says corruption prevails in the country because “we have high officials like Arroyo who abuse their authority to coddle corrupt officials. ”
“The grant of pardon to a convicted plunderer within six weeks of conviction is unprecedented in the entire 500-year history of our country,” says Marichu Lambino, who was among the private lawyers who assisted the government prosecution panel in Estrada’s plunder trial.
Lambino suspects that the haste lends credence to reports that the grant of pardon was the result of a deal struck between Arroyo and a powerful religious bloc. “Only the criminally rich and mighty who have big power brokers behind them are given pardon with such haste.”
As opposed to pardon as an act of mercy or grace as how jurisprudence calls it, Lambino adds that in Arroyo and Estrada’s case, it is one of “disgrace and ruthless display of power, an act that shows under the Arroyo government, there is no right and wrong — there is only power.”