12 SEPTEMBER 2007
THIS MONTH'S FEATURES
LITERATURE AND LITERACY
FACES OF CHANGE AND CHANGELESS PLACES
Beyond the verdict, however, thought should be given on how the trial was handled by the Sandiganbayan, the special court that has jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases involving graft and other offenses committed by public officials and employees.
Court observers agree that while the court tried very hard to ensure fairness throughout the proceedings, it became lenient to former President Estrada — in many instances to a fault. In fact, Estrada is now headed back to his Tanay residence, where he has been staying for the last three years, instead of Muntinlupa, where he is supposed to go after being convicted.
The Estrada case thus puts in the spotlight once again how the justice system can become so helpless in the face of a powerful accused. Indeed, the proceedings that were highly politicized became mournfully drawn out, clogged up as it was in part with numerous court-granted perks for Estrada that would make ordinary inmates weep.
Veteran criminal lawyer Mario Ongkiko says, though, that all the special considerations, even for a former president, set a bad precedent in the justice system. "Nagkaroon ng special treatment,” he says. “Now you can expect other accused of prominent stature to ask for some privileges. It's tailoring the penal system to suit the needs of the accused."
Still, in a justice system where cases sleep for decades, a high-profile case finished in six years — as the Estrada case was — is regarded as a feat. Even the prosecution panel, which tried to ward off every attempt of the Estrada camp to delay the case, says finishing the trial in six years is already an accomplishment in the Philippine setting.
"If you will consider the personalities involved — the former President, an incumbent senator — this could (have gone) on for many years,” says Ombudsman Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, head of the prosecution panel. “Estrada is an acknowledged opposition leader, very influential, maraming (lots of) resources."
He adds, "If you compare it with the Marcos and Romualdez cases and many other cases that after 20 years there is still no result, we achieved something — that a case involving a president can be terminated in a shorter period."
This is also considering the fact that for more than 80 days — or the equivalent of close to three months — of the six years that the case dragged on, the accused was outside his place of detention.
Which has made people like Ongkiko worry. "All persons should be treated equal, all prisoners should be treated the same,” he points out. “But the equality clause is violated very openly."
Court observers believe that the Sandiganbayan's leniency toward Estrada could have been a court tactic to sugarcoat an anticipated adverse ruling on the accused. "At the end of the day, Erap would (then) have no right to say that the Sandiganbayan persecuted him," a court observer said.
Ongkiko only goes as far as saying that the Sandiganbayan has the choice to implement the law but has become lenient to Estrada, obviously bowing to some "external influence." He declines to elaborate, but it is well known that Sandiganbayan justices may be appointed by the President to the Supreme Court.
A LITANY OF CONCESSIONS
He was allowed to go to the United States for a knee replacement surgery in December 2003, although this did not push through because the U.S. Embassy declined to give him a visa. He opted for Hong Kong, spending 20 days there in a hotel, even flying in his barber.
The Sandiganbayan, which created a Special Division just to handle Estrada’s case, also granted the deposed president's requests to undergo "spiritual healing" in Caloocan.
Estrada got to see his mother Doña Mary many times (the latest being last Sunday) and was present during her May 2 birthday from 2004 up to this year, when she turned 102. He himself had a birthday bash in 2005.
He even had a Lenten break in 2004, and was able to spend Christmas and New Year in his house in Greenhills in 2005 and 2006.
Estrada also did not miss such occasions as the wake of his friend Fernando Poe Jr., the anniversary of religious group El Shaddai, the centennial of his hometown San Juan, and the wedding and oath-taking of his son San Juan Mayor Joseph Victor ‘JV’ Ejercito.
The former president tried as well to ask the court permission for him to visit his mother every weekend, spend All Saints' Day outside detention, celebrate son Jinggoy's birthday, and personally file a libel case. But these were denied.
The antigraft court also twice denied his requests for house arrest. In July 2004, however, it reversed these rulings. Estrada has since been detained at his sprawling resort-like villa in Tanay, Rizal — from his previous confinement in Camp Capinpin, also in Tanay; Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna; Camp Crame and Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City.
In its previous rulings, the Sandiganbayan said there was no basis in the Constitution or in law to allow Estrada, who is facing a capital offense, to be held under house arrest. But Jose Flaminiano of the defense says it is assumed that the justices of the Special Division studied the motion regarding this. "These motions are what they call discretionary on the part of the court,” he says. “It's…for the court to decide whether to grant or not."
Besides, the prosecution never challenged many of the orders of the Sandiganbayan granting his client's requests, he says. Flaminiano also says that nobody can invoke equal treatment because no other inmate bothered to file motions similar to theirs.
Flaminiano says the fact that the accused was elected by an overwhelming majority of Filipinos accords him a certain advantage. "Having been a president, he is imbued with a peculiar privilege, entitled to some degree of leniency,” he argues. “After all, he will not escape."
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