Sunday, July 8, 2007

The political martyrdom of Joseph Ejercito Estrada

If memory serves, it was Lee Kwan Yew who said some years ago that “to name the enemy is to make him.” It is not a novel thought, but it is a truth worth keeping in mind when one speaks or does propaganda work for government. No government can afford not to know it, yet there is no sign that Malacanang propagandists were aware of it when they ran those full-page newspaper ads, “Erap: Guilty or not Guilty. Kailangan bang may gulo?”

Obviously they must have thought they were doing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo a favor. That, they were preempting violent reaction from the opposition in case the Sandiganbayan finally convicts former President Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada of plunder. The immediate result was a muddle of unintended consequences.

By that one mindless act, Mrs. Arroyo’s protectors succeeded in thrusting her, with or without her cooperation or consent, into the jaws of the tiger. By calling on Erap’s supporters to “let the law prevail” and not to react violently to his possible, if not probable, conviction, they made it sufficiently clear that his conviction was in fact imminent, and that they were afraid of the opposition’s reaction to it. That is naming, and making the enemy, indeed.

One columnist has taken up the cudgels for those behind the ads by asking, who can possibly be against “letting the rule of law prevail?” Let the courts decide, chorus the other defenders. Well, let us grant these defenders their good intentions, but let us ask them to look at things a little more deeply.

As a general principle, the courts should decide and we want them to decide. Where justice reigns, and justice and the rule of law are interchangeable, we want the rule of law to prevail. But where those in power have so casually misused the law for their own ends, and the courts do not have a record of standing up for what is right, regardless of the consequence; where the law has become a servant to power, instead of power being a servant to the law, we cannot really talk of a rule of law; we can talk only of misrule by law. This is the crux of the matter.

Because the Estrada case is in court, the court will have to decide. Yet it must decide on its own, and not just pronounce a decision made for it by others. It must not only decide justly; it must above all be seen to decide justly. But where the case is primarily, if not solely, political, can there be any just decision which does not declare the case political?

The question before the court is whether or not Estrada is guilty of graft and corruption, perjury and plunder. That can be decided either on the basis of the evidence, or on the basis of political pressure, if the court allows such pressure. But to a great many people, that is not the question at all. To them, the real question is constitutional, and involves one of jurisdiction----whether or not Estrada should be facing those charges at all, before he had fully served the six years to which he had been elected president in 1998 by the Filipino people.

It is settled jurisprudence that no President may be brought to court on criminal charges before the expiration of his elected term, unless he shall have been impeached and removed upon being found guilty of the charges against him in a Senate impeachment trial. Then and only then may he be formally accused in court of the same charges for which he had been impeached and removed, or of any other crime.

In Estrada’s case, he was impeached by the House of Representatives, but never found guilty by the Senate, where the court disbanded without concluding the trial. The failure or refusal of the prosecution to continue the trial against him and the Chief Justice’s failure to summon the prosecution back to court and reconvene the trial are, in fact, interpreted by some as amounting to the prosecution’s failure to prosecute, and to a verdict of acquittal.

For this reason, Estrada should never have submitted to the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction, just as then Opposition Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino never submitted to the jurisdiction of the court martial that found him guilty and imposed upon him the death sentence under Marcos; just as Saddam Hussein never recognized the jurisdiction of the international tribunal that tried him, sentenced him to death, and carried out his execution.

But Estrada finally submitted to the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction, despite initial statements to the contrary. That, in our view, was a fatal mistake, for which he would have to pay dearly. So he cannot denounce Mrs. Arroyo’s apparent or real influence on the court now, or any of the judges’ suspected desire to please her, without confirming his naivete for having completely misread everything.

From the very start, it should have been clear to Estrada that once the cases had been filed against him, it was no longer a question of whether or not he would be convicted, but rather when they would convict him. Had he agreed to the administration’s proposal, after his removal, that he sign a formal letter of resignation, or go on self-exile in a country of his choice, he would not have been arrested and detained for his alleged crimes. He would have been a free man living a sybaritic and completely irrelevant life in some foreign land, instead of being detained in Tanay.

But he insisted on staying, so he must accept its consequences, the worst of which is now about to unfold. It is most unfortunate that while the sword is about to drop, the artificial alliances Estrada had tried to create during the last elections are also about to unravel in favor of the administration. The old opposition bloc that had argued about Estrada’s legitimate claim to the presidency and provided real opposition to the Arroyo government from his removal in 2001 up to the run-up to the last senatorial election has been replaced by an artificial group that took up the opposition label for the purpose of winning the election, while retaining its hidden ties with the administration. Some of the newly elected “Genuine Opposition” senators have now formed a new bloc in alliance with the administration to ensure Senate President Manny Villar’s reelection, at the cost of Estrada’s sacrifices for the opposition.

It is highly doubtful that any of his allies will risk anything now to demand real justice for him, which is the other word for his freedom. This will most probably remain the prerogative of people like former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Jr., the man whose “I accuse” speech on the floor of the Senate on Oct. 5, 2000 had started Estrada’s long ride to Tanay. But the world may be forgiven for not being overenthusiastic about Guingona. His spiel about Estrada being a changed man, even if true, has little value except perhaps in a feel-good rally; the only relevant and worthwhile point he could make, and should make now, if he wants to right a grievous wrong, is to say that there was a grand political conspiracy to oust Estrada in 2001, that this conspiracy is continuing, and that the Sandiganbayan cannot afford to sentence Estrada even for a just single day in jail without transforming him into a political martyr.

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