Sunday, December 9, 2007

Neither kid gloves nor mailed fist for Trillanes

The administration is in a pickle trying to decide how to handle Senator-detainee Antonio Trillanes IV. Using kid gloves is certainly out of the question, but a mailed fist could turn the former Navy first lieutenant into a full-blown underdog. Malacanang cannot possibly want this.

Arrested and detained after the 2003 failed Oakwood mutiny, Trillanes was mysteriously picked up by the “Genuine Opposition” as a senatorial candidate last May. With no reasonable hope or prospect of winning, or even campaigning, he ran on the lone promise of impeaching Mrs. Arroyo, after two failed attempts in the House of Representatives.

This was a serious misquote of a senator’s role, which is primarily to make laws and, on occasion, to sit as an impartial judge in a Senate impeachment trial after the House has impeached an impeachable official like the President. But the pro-opposition voters knew no better than the single-issue candidate; with an extra push from mostly young military officers, civil society and the Left, and at least one well-known perennial contributor to seasonal political campaigns, the candidate won.

The court then ruled that he may not attend the Senate sessions or committee hearings, nor use his place of detention to conduct official Senate business. Thus, a senator elected by the Filipino people is unable to exercise his rights and perform his duties because of a case where the complainant is also the Filipino people.

Some lawyers argue, off-court, that since his election came very much after his arrest, it supersedes the court’s decision to hold him without bail. Moreover, his election is deemed to have removed all risks of flight of the accused who is presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise. This, however, has not been put formally to the court.

On Nov. 29, he walked out of his trial in a Makati courtroom, and marched all the way to Manila Peninsula hotel, with Brig. Gen. Danny Lim in tow, and all the security men assigned to guard him. There he called for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation to pave the way for a new transition government. He was arrested several hours later, and taken to Bicutan for a new round of processing. Since then his troubles have grown, and so have those of his jailers.

Administration Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has proposed that Trillanes be stripped of his title as senator, and his jailers have threatened to transfer him from his cell in Camp Crame to the national penitentiary at Muntinglupa, there to lie in the company of common criminals.

Both threats are highly intimidating. But one does not have the same effect as the other. And the effects on Trillanes may not be as grave and damaging as those on the administration. Let us see how.

The expulsion proposal requires a process, pursuant to the Constitution and the Senate Rules of Procedure. Both documents allow a senator to be suspended or expelled from the Senate for disorderly behavior, upon a vote of two-thirds of all its members. This entails a debate on principles, a determination of the facts, and the final judgment of one’s peers.

As a matter of principle, the Committee on Ethics could first determine whether it is legally, morally and politically acceptable for an elected senator to call for the replacement of a sitting President by an extra-constitutional personality or structure. This is the core question.

There are two parts to this proposition. The first part refers to the call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation; the second part, to the proposal for an extra-constitutional replacement, which does away with the law on presidential succession.

Whatever the motive, there is nothing wrong in calling for a President’s (any President’s) resignation. Valid or not, it is part of the right to free expression. Mere political bias is enough to justify such call. For instance, from November 2000 to January 2001, at least eight senators called for President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s resignation, while sitting as judges in his Senate impeachment trial. Nobody threatened them with disciplinary action; the anti-Estrada crowd held them up as some kind of icons, instead of censuring them for censurable court behavior.

But the second part of the proposition may not be so easily defensible. On this point Sen. Santiago and the other administration senators could go to town, and compel the committee to take a clear position on the principle. They will, however, need the concurrence of at least 16 senators to suspend or expel the offending senator. Does the administration have 16 senators? This is the decisive question.

Meanwhile, the court will have to allow Trillanes to appear before the committee to personally answer the charges against him. And once there, he could expatiate on all his grievances against the regime, and repeat to his heart’s content his call for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation. That the administration is eager to take this risk is, at best, doubtful.

The proposed transfer to Bilibid Prison is something else. Stories about how young and good-looking prisoners are normally violated by hardened inmates who have virtual control of the prison life of everybody else are enough to make Lawrence of Arabia shiver. So, were Trillanes to be tossed inside Bilibid and violated by its resident sodomists or tortured by its self-appointed torturers, the administration could end up with a severe human rights scandal it doesn’t need at all.

The greater danger, however, lies in the possibility of Trillanes being welcomed by the inmates as one of their own. Despite his repeated failure from Oakwood to Peninsula hotel, some people think he is still eminently recyclable. One particular analyst seems to believe his latest failure has not diminished his luster. Many inmates tend to identify with the underdog and could have the same thinking. It is noted that prior to Erap’s pardon, about a hundred inmates were reported to have offered to divide the former President’s life sentence among themselves so that he would not have to serve at all. Of course Trillanes is not Estrada, but something similar could happen.

The administration’s dilemma is not an easy one. It could get impaled in the horns of the dilemma if it allows its desire for vengeance to guide its actions, instead of trying to act in the most just manner that would win the approval and support of the people. It was not too long ago that then Justice Abraham Sarmiento reminded the powers of the day that neither justice nor democratic governance is about “getting even;” it is worth pointing out that winning the people’s trust and one’s perceived enemy is always the more desirable option.

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