Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Political prosecution

In the first year of his presidency, President Noynoy Aquino was successful in having impeached former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom he considered one of the main obstacles in his objective of cleaning the government of corruption, a promise he made during the election campaign. The other obstacle is former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is currently in hospital detention and waiting for her day in court on charges of plunder and election sabotage.
Now, the Aquino administration is determined to flush out some high-profile members of Congress for allegedly taking part in a pork barrel scam that involved billions of pesos that were supposed to be earmarked for projects under the Priority Development Fund (PDAF). Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. are all prominent members of the opposition, with the latter being touted as a presidential hopeful in the 2016 elections.
Members of President Noynoy Aquino's poltical opposition who are target of
of the current PDAF scam investigation. Photo courtesy of rappler.
The President’s Secretary of Justice, Leila de Lima, has promised to add more senators to the list of the accused in the scam. Likely to be accused are Senators Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Gregorio Honasan and about 23 representatives in Congress, all members of the opposition.
There is a very clear pattern in President Aquino’s crusade against corruption in high levels of government. From the ousted former SC Chief Justice Corona to ex-president Gloria Arroyo and the senators and representatives named in the PDAF mess, the objective appears to be the annihilation of the opposition. If this is not political prosecution, what else is it?
President Aquino, a member of Congress before becoming president, and all other members of the legislature could have collected their share of their PDAF allocations during the COA audit year 2007 to 2009. Singling out only members of the opposition as culpable for receiving bribes under the PDAF scam, while overlooking others simply because of their affiliation and support of the president’s political party, is a hallmark of a systematic prosecution for political purposes.
Besides, PDAF represents only 1.3 percent of the national budget. This means that there are other and bigger sources of corruption for which the current government is being opaque about.
The President’s so-called social fund, which is actually discretionary funding not subject to oversight and audit, is far larger than PDAF and about 1.5 trillion pesos. If the President is sincere in his desire to wipe out corruption in government, he should start being transparent at home. His entire cabinet may not be as clean as the president would like the public to believe.
There is a public perception, which the current president will probably admit, that the entire Philippine government, from the Executive to the Legislative to the Judiciary, has been immersed in the culture of open and pervasive graft and plunder. This cancer of corruption has once earned the country of being “the most corrupt country in Asia,” or the “perpetual sick man of Asia.”
The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Transparency International for the year 2012 ranks the Philippines at 105 among countries and territories on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. A ranking of 105 means that the country is more corrupt from among the countries surveyed, with a lower ranking indicating a country is least corrupt, like Denmark which stands at number 1. The Philippines is virtually tied with Mali, a country in West Africa that is in turmoil because of Islamist rebellion. This index of corruption for the Philippines would certainly be altered by the PDAF scandal depending on the results of the ongoing investigation and possible prosecution of all those involved.
What is probably more disturbing with the PDAF mess is not the exposé of the massive use of these funds but how those accused of corruption are being prosecuted. Prosecution of the corrupt in government, if done honestly and through due process of law, will change not only our perception of corruption but strengthen everyone’s respect for the rule of law. But if the corrupt are prosecuted for the purpose of decimating the opposition and preserving the status quo of those in power, this will only encourage more corruption, disdain for accountability, and the perpetuation of a culture of impunity.
Totalitarian or repressive governments do not have a monopoly of political prosecutions. They can also happen in a democratic system, albeit a failed one, like the Philippines. It is quite easy to spot when a government considers it politically expedient to prosecute its enemies, detractors and critics.
Former Chief Justice Corona was an easy target and thus became a fall guy for the previous administration that he served with blind loyalty. Deposing him for his failure to honestly disclose his statement of assets and liabilities net worth (SALN) is a shallow rationale when his colleagues in the court or even other high-ranking officials of government might equally be guilty of the same omission. Corona was indeed guilty for serving his master by accepting his midnight appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which shows a lack of integrity when he could have simply allowed the incoming president to exercise that prerogative.
The senators and other members of Congress named as respondents in the PDAF complaint represent a clear and present threat to the president’s rule, thus it becomes politically expedient to prosecute them in order to preserve the transfer of power to his anointed successor(s).
Janet Napoles, suspected mastermind of the P10-billion peso scam in
government custody. Photo by hereisgone2003.
In the PDAF case, the justice system is being exploited by the incumbent government to preserve itself and ensure continuity of its stranglehold of power to the next government, which of course will be sympathetic to its administration and will simply ignore whatever abuses or corrupt activities it had committed. The timing and circumstances of the continuing PDAF investigation are particularly suspect because if the government is successful, criminal charges against the accused may disqualify them for running in office in the next elections.
We have the flashpoints of whether the present PDAF investigation and prosecution is politically motivated. We all know that all those named in the complaint are high-profile members of the president’s opposition. They may seek election to the high office of the land, which is a threshold inquiry. This is not saying that being in the political opposition carries an expectation of immunity because those in the opposition can still commit a crime.
Plunder is such a high crime that prosecuting those accused would be equally difficult, but it can achieve so much media coverage and publicity that the current government may need to deflect public dissatisfaction of the President’s inept leadership. For instance, incessant news coverage of the PDAF scandal can mute the ongoing difficulty and frustration of President Aquino and his military in containing the Muslim unrest in Mindanao. In the same way that President Aquino uses favourable ratings of his administration despite the failure of an increased economic performance, like a spike in investor confidence when this has not been translated in an increase in employment and reduction in poverty.
The conduct of the investigation of the PDAF scandal has also a bearing on the political motivation of the government to prosecute its detractors. Parallel investigations likewise add to the confusion, such as the Office of Ombudsman conducting a review of the complaint, the Department of Justice continuing to forage additional evidence so it can add more names in the list of the accused, or the Senate convening a Blue Ribbon committee for its own investigation of the scandal.
The trial of the respondents, of course, would be the biggest indicator of whether the accused are being politically prosecuted. But we don’t know yet if this case would see the light of day. The Department of Justice seems to be conducting the case in the press, so the public is becoming more anxious to see a public lynching. When mainstream newspapers and the social media attempt to build public sympathy or support the charges brought, the stronger the indication of a politically motivated prosecution.
It is entirely possible both that the accused legislators are guilty of the crime of plunder and that the prosecution is politically motivated. But whether the prosecution is politically motivated is something we can separate from the question of guilt or innocence of the accused. With its sweeping mantra of daang matuwid, everyone in government could be found guilty of plunder and other forms of bribery. And when the prosecutor is out to get the accused as part of a political agenda, the act of prosecution is an assault on democratic institutions.
The human rights lawyer Scott Horton, in a 2008 article in Harper’s Magazine, wrote about Andrei Januaryevich Vyshinsky, Stalin’s prosecutor, who is best known for his use of prosecution as a political tool. Vyshinsky used the criminal justice system to destroy Stalin’s enemies. He pioneered the notion of the “show trial” in which the defendant would be brought before the world as a broken and hollow man, confessing his crimes like a one act in a longer play in which his crimes would be staged before the world. Vyshinsky would not only eliminate the accused, but even destroy his memory, limiting the likelihood that an opposition group might form around him.
At the rate the PDAF investigation is going, such a conclusion that Vyshinsky envisaged is not a far-fetched scenario.

1 comment:

  1. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Does not happen in democracy? The Philippines was, before Dictator Pres Marcos. How could Erap amass wealth, if as president he did not wield a near plenary power? In the House of Lords in 1770, Pitt the Elder said: "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it". When the media dances with the president with a Deadly Waltz, pawning and deferential instead of seeking the truth, Presidents like Aquino and Obama become drunk with self-presumption for grandeur. They then persecute opposition who are unafraid to expose their nakedness, being emperors without clothes. If they times are right, a country could produce a Hitler, a Stalin, a Bonaparte who would lead the country and its culture into a downward spiral faster than the "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." I felt proud that we have a ruminant mind in Joe Rivera, who analyzes the political ambience with razor blade sharpness with clear language as viewed by an uncomplicated mind.